Milken Teens Live, Learn on Skid Row


 

Keep passing. Keep passing.”

It’s 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in March, and students from Milken Community High School, wearing hairnets, plastic aprons and gloves, are dishing out hot cereal, sugar, applesauce, milk and a muffin assembly-line style onto blue trays.

“We’re a well-oiled machine,” says 11th-grader Ethan Stern, the last student in line, who — with a smile and a “good morning” — hands a tray to each of the 130 males living at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

The 22 Milken juniors and seniors, who arrived the previous afternoon with several teachers and administrators, are spending two days and nights at the Union Rescue Mission, sleeping in bedrooms on a locked floor reserved for volunteers. They are taking part in the mission’s Urban Experience Program, a 52-hour hands-on community service project in which they live and work at the mission to learn about the complexities of hunger and homelessness.

“We have to leave our comfortable communities to see how the rest of Los Angeles lives,” says Wendy Ordower, community service coordinator at Milken, a transdenominational Jewish day school in the Sepulveda Pass. “Like at Yom Kippur, we need to be disturbed.”

Breakfast continues till 10 a.m., during which time the students bus dishes and wipe down tables, serve another 350 women and children and, after a short break to eat their own breakfast, fill trays for another 200 men.

The students spend the majority of their time serving food, with the mission providing an average of 2,200 meals daily. They also work in the warehouse filling boxes with hygiene supplies and candies, part of the mission’s Easter outreach of 3,500 packages to be distributed to local homeless and low-income Angelenos. Additionally, they tour the facility, chat and play basketball with the residents, create a mural to leave at the mission and meet as a group to reflect on their experiences.

“I had a stereotypical view of the homeless,” says 12th-grader Tannis Mann. “These are real people, and there are real reasons why they are here.”

In the evenings, the students listen to participants’ stories in the Christian Life Discipleship Program, a one-year residential program that graduates about 100 men annually, providing them with the recovery, educational and work skills needed to rebuild their lives.

They hear from Aaron, a former Catholic seminarian, who had “a little alcohol problem” and Michael, a CPA who moved to Los Angeles only to be immediately mugged and robbed of everything. They also listen to Robert, a former gang leader and prison inmate, who tells them, “Learn to make the good decisions because I made the bad ones when I thought I was cool.”

All the students pay close attention to their words.

“If I see someone on the street, I won’t see them in the same way again,” acknowledges 12th-grader Leticia Grosz.

The teens learn that the reasons for homelessness go beyond addiction to include poverty, lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, mental illness, unemployment and prison release. They learn there are about 80,000 homeless in L.A. County but just slightly more than 18,500 beds. They also discover that women and children are the fastest-growing homeless population segment nationwide.

Some of those women live in the shelter, part of a six-month program called Second Step, designed to get them back into permanent housing and jobs. Others who come to the Mission for meals are homeless or reside in daily rate hotels or single-room apartments in the Skid Row area.

The Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit, privately funded, faith-based organization, was founded in 1891. Now housed in a five-story, 225,000 square-foot facility completed in 1994, it provides an array of emergency and long-term services to the poor and homeless, including food, shelter (797 emergency and transitional beds), clothing, medical and dental treatment, recovery programs, counseling, education, job training and legal assistance.

Some former residents now work for the mission.

Irvin “Pepi” Jones, who runs the evening dining room shift, tells the students, “Ten years ago I was in that line [of homeless men]. I used to push a cart and eat out of the trash.”

The students are moved by what they see and hear.

“These people have so much faith and love for God. They have such purpose in life,” says 11th-grader Alli Rudy.

That is the kind of impact Jewish studies teacher Rabbi Ruth Sohn wants from the program.

“I hope that the kids have a greater awareness of how poverty, drug addiction and prison can destroy lives but that they also feel empowered by what kinds of possibilities exist to turn your life around,” Sohn says.

The program also reminds the students of the role they can play in changing Los Angeles’ urban landscape.

“There’s such incredible work you can do,” says 12-grader Sophie Bibas. “It’s not an option; it’s an obligation.”

As the students board the bus at the end of the 52 hours, student Karin Alpert, speaking for many in the group, says, “For sure I’m doing this again next year.”

 

Jews Say Bonjour to Club Lampadaire


In between the prayers at the Pinto Shul in the Pico-Robertson area, people who only speak English might feel a little lost.

Not because congregants there don’t speak English — they do, except they are likely to break off into French every so often, leaving behind the hapless English speakers. Likewise, if you are expecting cholent or kugel or any of the other regular foods that you find at an English-speaking shul, you have gone to the wrong place. "Kiddush" at the Pinto Shul has a North African flair. Instead of cholent, they serve salmon cooked in red sauce with garbanzo beans, rice sticky with prunes and apricots and boutargue, a special Tunisian delicacy of dried waxed fish (which to the uninitiated palate tastes like shriveled goldfish).

The Pinto Shul is one of several congregations in Los Angeles that serves the French-speaking Jewish community. Unlike other ethnic Jewish communities in Los Angeles, such as the Persian community, the French-speaking community does not have a cohesive origin. French speaking Jews in Los Angeles are predominantly Sephardic, but they emigrated from a variety of places — Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and France. Eager to escape the perceived and real hostility toward Jews in their countries of origin, and in some cases attracted by the greater personal freedoms that America offered, French-speaking Jews have been coming to Los Angeles for several decades now. They view Los Angeles as a good weather alternative to Montreal, where the French community is the largest outside Israel and France. In Los Angeles, despite their disparate origins, French-speaking Jews tend to stick together, united by the language and a shared cultural affinity.

In 1997, there were approximately 2,500 Jews of North African or French origin in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey. Today, some estimate that the number has grown to 5,000.

Up until now, this community’s organized communal life has been relegated to the synagogue. Shuls like the Pinto Shul; Congregation Em Habanim and Adat Yeshurun in the Valley; the Baba Sale Shul in the Fairfax district; and the West Coast Torah Center in Beverly Hills have predominantly French-speaking congregations.

This Chanukah, however, marks the emergence of Club Lampadaire (The Lamp Club), a new French community group in Los Angeles, which aims to unite the French Jewish community with social, spiritual and cultural events.

"I think a lot of Jews living in France see California as an antidote to the stuffiness and formality of French society, and the pleasant weather reminds us of our childhood on the Mediterranean, and it appeals to our sense of nostalgia," said David Suissa, one of the founders of Club Lampadaire, who was born in Morocco. "But at the same time, the way the city is so spread out it does not encourage the fathering of the community which would otherwise happen naturally. So we have to compensate for that by creating this organization to make it easier for us to get together on a regular basis."

Club Lampadaire currently has a membership of 600 families, and has already raised $25,000 for its events from French Jews. Suissa said that Club Lampadaire was inspired by a conference given to French-speaking Jews in Los Angeles by Yechiya Benchetrit, one of the leading rabbis in France. "During this talk he brought up the word lampadaire, lamp, and suggested that Jews are like lamps and our mission in life is to light up the world," Suissa said. "So we decided to start an association which would bring together all the different synagogues and create a family of French Jews in Los Angeles. Our slogan is Alluman Le Foi et La Joir — light up faith and joy — and our first event will be to light up the first night of Chanukah. We want to seek out all the French Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated or nonaffiliated, and tell them that they have a home."

"I have a lot of American friends, but because of the wittiness of the French language, I feel more at ease on a cultural level with Jews who are French speaking," said Lolita Engleson, a psychologist, who was born in Lebanon but moved here from France while trying to market a documentary film she made about the Jews in Lebanon.

In Los Angeles, many French-speaking Jews find it difficult to get working visas or green cards, so they attempt to network in the community to find employment and sponsors that will allow them to do so. "They love it here," said Rafael Gabay, a French Moroccan who is president of the Baba Sale Shul. "If they can live here free without having a problem with a green card, then this place is a paradise."

No Shvitz


Hot on the heels of the Jewish Community Center closings, YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles announced in late June that it would close the saunas and steam rooms in seven of the eight centers that still had them. (The Hollywood-Wilshire Y will leave its sauna open on a 90-day trial basis with increased monitoring.) The announcement sparked anger and protest from YMCA members who have used the facilities for years.

To find out more about the sauna closings, and the relevance of YMCAs to the Jewish community, The Jewish Journal turned to a man who knows both quite well. Larry Rosen is the president and CEO of YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Rosen, who grew up a member of Temple Israel of Westchester, has spent 32 of his 54 ("and three-fourths") years as a YMCA professional. Los Angeles YMCA bylaws state its goals are: "To develop and improve the spiritual, social, mental and physical life of youth and adults in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus…." But Rosen points out another part of his organization’s self-definition: "….Association of persons of all ages, ethnic groups and religious affiliations who are united in a common effort to put Judeo-Christian principles into practice…."

Jewish Journal: The YMCA Web site says the values of the YMCA are Judeo-Christian.

Larry Rosen: And that’s true. In fact the Los Angeles YMCA mission is putting Judeo-Christian principles into practice. All but the most strictly religious Jews don’t seem to have a problem with it. The truth is that since the end of World War II, Jews have gone to YMCAs in huge numbers, in every urban area in America, including Los Angeles. It is not either uncommon or unusual in any respect for Jews to be active in both membership, as you can now see on the staff, and in the volunteer leadership of YMCAs. The other thing is that YMCAs because they are so much larger and more widespread an institution than the JCCs, have always had a larger array of programming than the JCCs are able to produce.

JJ: You said that it’s not uncommon for Jews to be members and leaders of YMCA. Why do you think that is?

LR: There’s a big reason. It’s ecumenical, it’s not spiritually neutral, neither is it spiritually doctrinaire. There’s nothing about it that is alien to the Jewish experience. That’s why I think it is a very comfortable environment for Jews.

JJ: So how does the programming of a YMCA differ from that at a JCC?

LR: Between the volume and the geographical distribution and the kind of pervasive nature in American life, the Y has been more available to more people than JCCs have ever been able to be. That’s not a statement about quality, it’s an acknowledgment. Much of what people have gotten from JCCs they can’t get from YMCAs. What they can’t get is the concentration on Jewish life. That’s the thing that’s missing and that’s what I consider the great loss if the JCCs disappear. But in terms of health and fitness, child care and all these other things that people need in an urban environment, they can get that from YMCAs.

JJ: Why are the saunas and steam rooms closing?

LR: We are concerned that we’ve proven ourselves unable to control the inappropriate use of these facilities. People using them inappropriately put themselves at risk. So here’s the deal, take the alter-kacker going for a shvitz. The typical pattern has been that somebody either equates a good shvitz with a good workout, which is not true. A good shvitz is a good way to dehydrate yourself, raise your heart rate, your blood pressure and put yourself at risk for the other hazards of dehydration. So a good shvitz is not a good workout, but there’s a lot of mythology, or culture. It resists education, that’s one of the things we’re concerned about. Telling that gentleman that he’s putting himself at risk when he feels fine, is not a conversation that we can have successfully, and have not had successfully for decades. The other time that is a genuine risk, and a common one, is use immediately after exercise. A pattern of, say, "after a good workout, big swim, 30 minutes on a treadmill," fill in the blank, "I like to go have a steam, or a sauna." It’s the worst time in the world to do that in terms of putting yourself at risk. Over the decades, we haven’t found any successful way to monitor, control or prevent these risks that members incur by inappropriate use. That’s why we’ve closed them. Now those concerns remain and we are going to study them further.

JJ: So how do you react to the protesters who say you’re shutting them for financial or other reasons?

LR: This is not a popular decision; it isn’t a decision for popular vote. We know that these are popular. This is a health and safety decision. So on one hand, people can protest until the next ice age, but if it is a genuine health and safety issue, which is the subject of our continuing exploration, then I don’t care how many people vote for it. So protests don’t help. They don’t mean anything in this decision. The only thing that would help would be evidence of methods we can use to prevent people from putting themselves in harm’s way. That’s the only thing we care about.

Passover Rescue


Five months ago, Beatrice Ballageure was struggling to make ends meet as a single, 47-year-old Jewish woman living in the capital city of an economically depressed Argentina. She had lost her job several months earlier, but she owned her own apartment and had enough money in the bank to afford basic expenses. She had friends with jobs, and she knew she could rely on her family if real trouble ever came.

Then the bottom fell out of Argentina’s economy.

The president announced that the country was defaulting on its public debt, the peso was devalued and immediately went into a free-fall, unemployment surged to 22 percent and the government froze all bank accounts, cutting off millions of Argentines from their life savings. In addition, food riots broke out, and the president, along with three of his successors, resigned.

Suddenly, Ballageure was out of options.

Last week, Ballageure found herself in a food line at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, waiting for a handout of basic foodstuffs for Passover. Over the course of three months, her sister had moved to Israel, all but two of her friends had lost their jobs and the few pesos she had left in the bank had been frozen and was rapidly shrinking in value. On top of that, she needed food to eat for the holiday.

“I was middle class,” said Ballageure, clutching her handbag in line at the Asociacian Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), Buenos Aires’ central Jewish community facility. “Now I have no class.”

Ballageure is just one of the tens of thousands of Jews — and millions of Argentines — who find themselves out of money and out of luck this Passover season. For Argentina’s once-wealthy Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone.

Unaccustomed to their sudden impoverishment, many of Argentina’s new Jewish poor are too ashamed to ask for help. However, their community leaders are sounding the alarm, and U.S. Jews have begun to respond.

Earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, and Dr. Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), led a group of a dozen rabbis on a two-day mission to Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine Jewish leaders and figure out how to distribute approximately $100,000 in relief aid for the purchase of Passover food.

The funds were raised for Argentina’s Jews by nearly 70 synagogues across North America, including several in the Los Angeles area: Sinai Temple, Temple Kol Tikvah, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Kehillat Israel, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom and Congregation Kol Ami.

“It’s like [Manhattan’s] Upper East Side suddenly went belly-up,” said Schneier of the plight of Argentine Jewry. “They still have their nice clothes and expensive homes, but they suddenly have no money to buy food and can’t make their monthly maintenance payments. It’s unbelievable.”

Bypassing the usual Jewish communal charity mechanisms, the group delivered the money directly to 32 synagogues in Argentina, many of which have had to open soup kitchens to feed their members. The checks were cashed at exchange centers rather than banks — where withdrawals are severely restricted — and the Argentine synagogues used the cash to buy food that was distributed to congregants and other needy Jews before the holiday.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs, spiritual leader of Woodland Hills’ Temple Kol Tikvah, took part in the mission, and he brought checks from the seven Southern California synagogues.

The swift fundraising operation was a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of maot hitim, giving food to the poor for Passover, said Schneier, the group’s president. “Usually we give maot hitim before Passover to poor Jews in New York,” said Schneier, who is the rabbi of Hampton Synagogue in Long Island, N.Y. “But when we focused this year on the issue of maot hitim, we knew there was a community of deep financial need in Argentina.”

Last month, the United Jewish Communities pledged $40 million in emergency aid for Argentine relief, $35 million of which is being allocated to aid Argentine aliyah and absorption in Israel, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, and $5 million of which is being spent locally in Argentina, under the aegis of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Commission of the Latin-American Jewish Congress, said Argentina’s woes pose nothing less than a problem of “physical survival” for the country’s Jews. “This community has no [financial] resources,” he said in Buenos Aires. “There are 50,000 poor Jews in Argentina, and only 20,000 have the protection of the Jewish community. Today we have a problem of the survival of Jews and of the Argentine Jewish community.”

“We came so that when we say in our homes on Passover behind closed doors, ‘Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat,’ we will not be lying,” said Singer, explaining the timing of the rabbis’ trip.

“It’s only a beginning,” Singer said. “We shall return.”

Mission Impossible?


On a brisk night in early January, hundreds of American Jews from throughout the United States, still jet-lagged from their arrival in Israel that morning, are filing into a large airplane hangar at Hatzor, an isolated air force base near Ashkelon.

After a few moments of announcements and greetings, Shlomi Shabbat, a top Israeli pop singer, takes the stage, to the excited applause of the young Israeli soldiers present, and launches into a long, loud and enthusiastic number, combining rock and Sephardi beats.

As the music begins to blare, I look around the room and wonder who planned this extravaganza. What was he or she thinking? All around me are more than 900 exhausted Americans in the middle of nowhere, no doubt wondering what they are doing here and when they can get some sleep. This is going to be a disaster, I think.

But, almost instantly, the soldiers, singing along to the Hebrew song, are out of their seats, clapping their hands, and dancing to the beat, some pressing toward the stage to dance. To my astonishment, they soon are joined by the Americans, rocking and shimmying along with their newfound dance partners, not a yawn to be found in the vast crowd.

So much for my assessment of what makes a United Jewish Communities (UJC) Solidarity Mission a success — or at least what was considered a success until this week.

The central figure behind this and about 150 other UJC missions a year has been Nechemia Dagan, a retired Israeli general with more than 30 years of service in the air force, who watched the proceedings from the back of the hangar with a smile.

Why a rock performance at Hatzor to kick off a five-day visit for the Americans? "It was a salute to the [Israel Defense Forces]," Dagan explained several weeks later at his office in New York. "I knew the soldiers would enjoy it," he said, and he figured correctly that the visitors would be caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment.

Dagan, 60, speaks with emotion about his sense of personal mission: to bridge the widening gap between American and Israeli Jews. "My two goals are to bring Americans to Israel and to expose them to real Israelis," he says.

Today, with tourism down 90 percent due to sometimes misplaced fears about the renewed intifada, solidarity missions — whirlwind briefings with Israeli leaders for American donors — account for the great majority of American visitors to Israel and are seen as critical to maintaining support in a time of crisis. Since October, some 3,000 people have participated, 900 of them on the early January visit.

But the new leadership at UJC is reviewing and re-evaluating the missions program, trying to break the mold of what some see as a tired formula of "canned speeches from political leaders and tours of Jerusalem," according to one official, who said that current missions "are an experience, not an outcome."

Enter Arthur Naparstek, a former academic in social work who in January was named senior vice president of UJC and director of its Israel and Overseas Pillar. He hopes to convince the majority of American Jews to visit Israel and plans to appeal to the "20 percent who sort of identify" Jewishly, through affinity groups (trips based on professions or special interests) or other programs that will be part of an overall goal of "strengthening community, here and in Israel," exploring religious, cultural and social similarities and differences.

More power to him. Surely more can and should be done, particularly to instill a sense of urgency among American Jewry about the undeclared war going on in Israel, which may get worse before it gets better. Only now, after almost six months of bloodshed, are American Jewish leaders worrying about the overall silence of the community and discussing a major rally in Washington to express solidarity with Israel.

Maybe it’s time for new faces, and for missions to be more than fleeting opportunities for the elite to hobnob with Israel’s prime minister. What is certain is that the disconnect between American Jews and Israel and between communal leaders and the majority of American Jews is growing wider. Bridging those divides should be the primary mission.


Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week. His e-mail address is
Gary@jewishweek.org

Together to Israel


I had been living vicariously for three months. First there were the attacks on the High Holy Days, the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb. A few days later, Israeli hikers were stranded under fire for hours near Schem-Nablus. The Internet had brought the daily conflict straight to my office: bus bombs, daily shootings in Jerusalem, assault on holy sites. I felt that I could no longer sit so far away in comfortable California, feeling secure and well-protected. I felt that I must go to Israel and share the fate of my brothers and sisters who were, and still are, facing one of the greatest challenges of the past 50 years.

The Orange County Jewish community joined with Los Angeles and many others in a solidarity mission to Israel Jan. 8-14. Based in Jerusalem, we fanned out to many locations in that city and others. Our community visited Kiryat Malechai, sister city of Orange County, and witnessed the remarkable growth there. We were never in any real danger. The day we visited Gilo, the southern Jerusalem neighborhood that has become a shooting range for Yasser Arafat’s terrorists, it was quiet. We were not taken to the settlements where Jews live under siege, unable to leave their homes. And even though we sat in the gilded cage of the fancy Jerusalem hotels, we still felt the pulse of the country. We connected to the people and maybe gave them a drop of inspiration at this crucial time.

It is not the Balfour Declaration nor any U.N. resolution that gives me, or any Jew, the right to say that I am connected to Israel. The bond between a California Jew and Israel is rooted in the Torah. The great commentator Rashi tells us the Torah begins with Genesis to teach us that G-d, as the world’s Creator, gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. If the nations of the world challenge our right we are to inform them of this fact that Rashi stated nearly 1,000 years ago. The three basic components of Judaism are the Torah, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and the Jewish people. This triad forms the core of Jewish identity.

The mission was a remarkable cross-section of Jewish communities. Prior to leaving we had a meeting to talk about study and programs on the trip. One liberal rabbi said we should discuss the “pluralism issue.” I retorted, “Jews are being killed. It is time to put aside our internal squabbles.” It was an idea that was fully endorsed by all.

The organizers tried to make a balanced program; we heard from the left and the right. For my taste, there could have been more Torah study. (Note to organizers: If you don’t want to offend your more religious brothers, don’t have the sole solicitations at a major dinner be for a gay and lesbian alliance in Jerusalem. You might include the local soup kitchen, a soldiers fund and a yeshiva. Just a helpful hint for next time.) But I, as others, shrugged off the things that did not fit into our ideological mold. There were bigger and more important issues at stake.

We had come as American Jews to stand strong behind Israel in a very difficult time. Some of us were members of Peace Now, others strong opponents of the Oslo Accords from day one. We put all the polemics and internal politics aside for a few days for a more important goal. And as one who came from outside the liberal Jewish establishment, a bit wary of how I would be treated, I felt welcomed with open arms. It gave us a chance to stand together with our fellow Jews at a time of great need.

Mission Accomplished


Maybe something positive will come out of the current crisis in Israel after all. Perhaps the arrival of many groups from communities all over the world will help further the understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews and lead to greater cooperation.

If the 150 Angelenos who took part in the seventh solidarity mission organized by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) Dec. 8-12 have anything to do with it, that’s already happening. Led by Sharon Janks, a dynamic veteran of many Israel missions, and by John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the group did its best to visit many of L.A.’s Partnership 2000 projects and listened to a variety of perspectives on the situation, all with the idea that American Jews have the responsibility to carry Israel’s message to the American public and can leave their imprint on Israeli society .

It’s a message, the Angelenos say, that needs to cut both ways. At a briefing prior to setting off to L.A.’s twin city, Tel Aviv, Fishel pointed out that one goal of the visit would be to lend support to the projects emphasizing religious diversity and tolerance. He warned the L.A. visitors about the “great divide” within Israel and noted that “Judaism as it’s practiced in the U.S. has not been on the agenda in Israel.
“Israelis are missing a great deal if they’re not exposed to our culture,” Fishel added.

In Tel Aviv, the group was divided along denominational lines to visit schools involved in twinning relationships with their L.A. counterparts. The Conservative track visited one of Israel’s most prestigious high schools, the Gymnasia Herzliya. Most U.S. high schools are not as well-equipped as Gymnasia Herzliya, with its state-of-the-art library, science wing and beautifully landscaped grounds.
The group heard from well-dressed, articulate students involved in exchange programs with Calabasas High School, as well as members of the Young Entrepreneurs group who are running a fledgling business with Arab students from Jaffa.

L.A. mission participants asked about the experimental Tali Jewish Studies curriculum, which is funded by a three-year Federation grant. Liad, an affable 12th-grader, answered that he did take a Jewish studies class in 10th grade, but “most kids don’t keep a lot of traditions and don’t know a lot about it. I learned a lot about moral Judaism.”

David Zisenwine, a professor of education at Tel Aviv University who serves as national chair of Tali, said the Tali’s main purpose is to show that Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who can teach Jewish texts. “Creeping Orthodoxy is a problem in Israel,” he explained.

At a more informal discussion with Israeli students active in the L.A.-Tel Aviv Partnership who maintain regular contact over the Internet with Jewish high schoolers in California, the discussion turned political. A few of the L.A. visitors took issue with the profoundly secular views expressed by the students.
“I think it’s a very good idea to give up the Temple Mount,” said Ido, a handsome, brown-eyed 10th-grader.

“Not for one second should we give it up,” countered Yoav Peled, an L.A. visitor.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox group traveled to the Ironi Het high school near the Azrieli Center. Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky and Elazar Muskin, with the predominantly male Orthodox participants, listened to an explanation of the Yesodot program, which operates on seed money from Federation.

Yesodot was conceived in the wake of the Rabin assassination to advance education toward democracy in religious schools. The project provides in-service teacher training on the subjects of halacha and the rule of law, human rights and civil rights.

But by afternoon, the mission participants were getting tired. One mission leader expressed disappointment at the low-key response.

“There’s nothing that’s grabbed them yet,” she said, complaining that a visit the day before to the embattled Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was a letdown. “I don’t know what I expected, but it didn’t do anything for me.”

The next stop provided the emotional punch she was looking for. All three L.A. buses visited projects in the Arab neighborhood of Ajami in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv.

At the Toulouse Day Care Center for the Elderly, some 40 middle-aged and elderly chador-clad Arab women sat waiting for the group in the pleasantly appointed meeting room. A few men lined the walls fingering their prayer beads as the Orthodox L.A. group walked in.

The center is attached to a large, attractive newly built three-story old-age home funded by the Tel Aviv municipality to serve the Arab residents of Ajami.

Fishel introduced the L.A. visitors, explaining that they were there to listen to their concerns. Instead of a lecture, Gabi Abd, a native of Jaffa who is now a neighborhood social worker and actor, dressed up as an elderly Arab and delivered an entertaining monologue describing the history of Jaffa’s Arab community.
“Jews and Arabs have the same father, just a different mother,” he notes. Abd described how some Arabs are waiting for the right of return to replace the Jews from Arab and European countries who moved into the area after the Arabs fled in 1948.

Ghnem Yakubi, a younger, English-speaking community activist, followed with a discussion. He explained Jaffa’s demographics. There are 54,000 people in Jaffa, of whom 34,000 are Jews. In the Ajami neighborhood, only 5 percent are Jewish. Sixty-six percent of the population is under the age of 29, so education and jobs are major concerns.

The women who had been sitting with sullen looks on their lined, dark faces started to mumble amongst themselves. Then one started angrily yelling and gesticulating. According to the translation we received, she was bitterly complaining about the lack of decent housing and the fact that Jews are spreading out into the area, buying up land. “Is this true democracy?” she asked.

Yakubi took the opportunity to explain that the Angelenos needed to understand that Jaffa’s violent outbreak last October was “100 percent tied to a civil rights movement.” It had nothing to do with nationalism, he claimed. “What happened in Jerusalem was just a trigger which centers around civic issues,” he asserted.

Several L.A. participants politely questioned his assumptions. The discussion heated up but remained respectful. As the group drove away on the bus, our guide Mark Reitkopp, a former American living on the secular kibbutz Elrom told us how difficult the meeting was for him.

“I really had to bite my tongue in there,” he said. Because of Arab violence and the complete cessation of tourism, he exclaimed, “I’m worse off economically now than they are!”

The evening ended on a lighter note as Tzeirei Tel Aviv, an energetic and professional teenage song and dance troupe, provided the group’s after-dinner entertainment. Jean Friedman, enthusiastic chair of the L.A.-Tel Aviv cultural exchange program, introduced the program and spent a few moments explaining the variety of cultural activities shared by the two cities. Politics intruded again as two members of the Theater Workshop of the Peres Center for Peace performed a couple of skits on Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Those who came on the mission from L.A. generally gave the tour top marks. Many had not visited Israel for a number of years and appreciated the opportunity for a whirlwind trip at a reasonable price. “I came because it was a convenient time to get away from business,” said Frank Ponder, who was last in Israel 16 years ago.

The standard visits to the Kotel and an air force base and the opportunity to listen to Israeli politicians from across the spectrum gave them something with which to inform their discussions about Israel back home.
The important tourism industry will benefit greatly from the visit, as will the growing cultural ties between L.A. and Tel Aviv. But for many in the group, the greatest impact has been the outward display of solidarity that the trip represents.

“Only after I came to Israel did I realize how important it is to be here,” wrote Metuka Benjamin, Stephen S. Wise Temple education director, on the mission Web site ( www. realitytoday.com/tour ). “Every group we met thanked us for coming here. I have never felt this before. My plans are to return to Los Angeles and work hard to encourage people and youngsters to come to Israel.”

Education Israel as a Core Requirement?


My daughter flew home for Thanksgiving with two college friends in tow. At the dinner table, the conversation revolved around computers and the antics of the Stanford Band. At some point in the course of that whirlwind four-day visit, Hilary informed me that, though she’s been diligently studying Hebrew since she started college, a Junior Year Abroad at Hebrew University is no longer part of her plans. It’s not that she’s changed her mind about someday returning to Israel, where she spent an amazing summer two years ago. But she’s convinced that, given the stringent requirements of the high-tech major she seems to have settled on, even a semester in Jerusalem would derail her progress toward her degree.

Like most American Jewish moms, I think of myself as both loving and pragmatic. And, so, I fully support Hilary’s decision. When college students make their course of study a top priority, when they march steadily down the path toward graduation and employment, parents can’t help but rejoice. Still, when I heard that Israel was no longer on my daughter’s agenda for the near future, I couldn’t help thinking of a recent breakfast gathering in Jerusalem, where Levi Lauer addressed a contingent from the Jewish Federation’s Golden Anniversary Community Mission to Israel.

Lauer, originally from Ohio, was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972. He ultimately moved to Israel, became halachically observant, and assumed the directorship of a respected coed learning center, the Pardes Institute. He’s currently affiliated with Jerusalem’s Melitz Center for Jewish and Zionist Education. Each summer, he jets to California to serve as scholar-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Collegiate Institute. Both here and in Israel, Lauer spends much of his time with young adults. As a parent, he also knows firsthand what it’s like to raise Israeli children to adulthood.

One of Lauer’s central themes is the difference between young Israelis and young American Jews. His own children have lived through the sealed rooms and gas masks of the Gulf War era. And they have gone a dozen times to the cemetery on Mount Herzl to bury friends who died in military clashes or terrorist attacks. They accept being part of a culture where those still too young to shave are required to make life-and-death decisions on the field of battle.

Today’s American Jewish kids are different, both from Israelis and from earlier generations of Americans who had their own wars to fight (or to resist). American young people, says Lauer, “take it for granted that the world is a safe place. They don’t foresee real suffering. They literally believe that anything is possible.

“[As a father], I envy your kids the fact that the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make is what car to buy or who to go out with or what graduate school to apply to.”

But an objective eye could find American Jewish young adults “intolerably pampered.” They are lacking in basic moral education. They’ve never really had to think beyond themselves.

The fact is: Young American Jews need Israel, and Israel needs them. Israelis can teach our kids the value of commitment to a community. As Lauer puts it: “They need to learn the language of their ancestors. They need to share the experiences of real people, not Zionist propaganda.” In exchange, American Jewish young adults can make important contributions to Israeli society.

Beyond studying at Israeli universities, they can — and should — significantly participate in Israel’s daily life. Lauer makes clear (though many who heard his talk failed to grasp this important distinction) that he does not advocate sending American Jews to fight on Israeli battlefields. But he does envision young Americans forming a sort of Job Corps to do the public work for which Israel is currently importing Third World laborers at enormous cost. He can imagine Americans building roads and hooking up Arab villages to Israel’s central power grid. Such labor would teach them the meaning of social interdependence. As a bonus, it “just might lead them to marry someone who’s also Jewish.”

Lauer doesn’t let young Israelis off the hook. Like their American Jewish counterparts, they are developing a tendency to measure their self-worth in terms of intellectual achievement and material gains. Israelis, he quips, “will buy anything that’s electric and lights up — even if it doesn’t work.”

But young Israeli men and women are soon taught by their army experiences that they are not a world unto themselves. Klal Yisrael takes on a whole new meaning for those who, as part of the Ethiopian rescue operation, were asked to “get up in the middle of the night and schlep 14,000 Jews six centuries.” Israelis may grumble about the constant need to look out for their fellow Jews, but they pitch in when the chips are down. Lauer’s message is that, through an extended stay in Israel, young Jewish Americans can absorb the same lesson.

But how willingly would our kids disrupt their busy American lives to make the trip? Here’s where parents come in. Lauer gently suggests that we, in our eagerness to give our youngsters the best that America has to offer, have steered them down the wrong path. He proposes that we start teaching our children, from age five onward, “not to go to UCLA or Stanford but to go to Israel between the ages of 18 and 20.”

Later, perhaps, after they’ve learned from Israelis what it’s like to live in a Jewish society (and, by their own example, have helped teach Israelis the value of American Jewish pluralism), they can

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