Lessons From Israel


Natalie, a 17-year-old from Ethiopia, looks forward to serving as an army paramedic and dreams of a trip to California. Mikhail, an 18-year-old from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, reflects on his decision to leave his friends in a crowded Tel Aviv nightclub one hour before the arrival of a suicide bomber.

Elsa, an 83-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor, cherishes a sacred Hebrew scroll rescued by her late husband from a burned-out Italian synagogue, while he served in the British army in World War II. Yuri, a former Soviet human rights activist turned hard-line Knesset member, sees parallels between a Soviet system that sought to crush dissent and a terrorist leadership that seeks to kill innocent civilians.

While most of the images of Israel presented to the American public are of military conflict, a recent mission to Israel sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which included City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, City Council President Alex Padilla, Cesar Chavez Foundation President Andres Irlando and myself, revealed something very different. We saw a multiethnic democracy full of citizens, with jaw-dropping stories of survival, demonstrating incredible resilience.

Halfway around the world, we encountered a small nation confronting many of the same challenges we face in Los Angeles and returned convinced that increased contact between Los Angeles and Israel can facilitate the solution of many complex problems at home. Some examples:

Immigration

Like the United States, Israel must cope with ongoing, massive influxes of immigrants from diverse places such as Ethiopia, Russia, South America and even Brooklyn.

Israel’s absorption centers and social service agencies must do more than accustom these new Israelis to a new language and society. They must ensure that the first generation of immigrant offspring are ready to do their patriotic duty in the military — and do it well — beginning at age 18.

While our country often does not quickly enable young immigrants and their children to reach their full potential in society, Israel jump starts its startlingly diverse immigrants on their way to meaningful citizenship. Somehow, it succeeds.

Pluralism

The debate over diversity in America can often seem abstract. Not so in Israel, where families such as Natalie’s and Mikhail’s live side by side. Israel’s very survival as a nation depends upon the recognition of new, diverse groups and the legitimacy of their civic participation.

For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was born in Tunisia; our trip’s security escort, Eyal, was born in Israel to an Iraqi father and a Polish mother.

Things are far from perfect, and the challenge of creating a discrimination-free society (particularly for the 20 percent Arab Israeli minority) in a time of war remains daunting. Nevertheless, the multiethnic Israel we experienced upends the United Nations’ infamous, now-rescinded resolution equating Zionism with racism and instead offers much for us to emulate.

Economic Redevelopment

Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, both modern, bustling seaside metropolises, face similar challenges in urban redevelopment.

Just as investors grew leery of South Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots, real estate interests have shied away from the largely Arab town of Jaffa during the latest wave of terror.

Both cities face similar challenges to empower private investors to find opportunities and to ensure that residents participate meaningfully in planning their own futures. Collaborative initiatives, such as the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership allow us to share insights gained from programs such as L.A.’s Project Genesis.

Terrorism Preparedness

The last three years have seen a tenfold increase in terrorist violence directed at innocent civilians in Israel, and the country has adapted with a new security regime. Israel has implemented meaningful security measures at high-risk locations, enhanced coordination between the public and private sector and leveraged intelligence and experience in screening efforts at airports.

Interestingly, along with increased vigilance has come a determination to reject paralysis — families and workers still lead productive and social lives.

Unfortunately, American cities such as Los Angeles will have to follow Israel’s lead and be smarter, better coordinated and more proactive as the threat of radical terror in the United States grows more acute in the coming years.

My colleagues and I left Israel struck by the diversity and resilience of the Israeli people. At the same time, we came away with lessons to confront the challenges of Los Angeles, where 18-year-olds too often pick up guns to fight against each other rather than for their country.

Obviously, Israel faces many difficult security and political issues. Still, Jews and Latinos represent so much of the strength and diversity of Los Angeles, and observing the struggles and successes of another land of immigrants redoubled our commitment to make Los Angeles succeed for everyone.


Jack Weiss represents the fifth district on the Los Angeles City Council.

‘United We Flourish’


Putting his own twist on a frequently invoked slogan, Lou Weiss, the newly elected president of Orange County’s

Jewish Federation, intends to make inclusiveness a priority during his tenure.

Rather than "united we stand," Weiss is adopting the motto, "united we flourish." His other goals are to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, support a soon-to-break- ground Jewish campus in Irvine and better the organization’s fund raising.

"I love being a Jew here in Orange County," says Weiss, 54, a marketing consultant and 18-year Federation board member who outlined his aims for the coming year recently from the ocean-view deck of his Laguna Beach home. Over two decades, he has played a role developing many of the county’s Jewish organizations, including the Orthodox shul in a former bank branch that is walking distance from his own home. "Anyone who is a clear thinker can rise to where ever they want to here," he says. "You don’t have to be rich."

While other regions have a more concentrated Jewish population and more established institutions, Weiss sees a benefit in the area’s relative immaturity. "There is amazing growth potential. Where there is a large Jewish population, you can’t stand out. This is the ideal critical mass."

Weiss assumes leadership of the county’s highest-profile Jewish organization as its annual campaign, which supports Jewish schools and services, grew by 12 percent to a record $2.06 million, even as the community contributed another $457,000 to an Israel emergency fund. Any improvement runs counter to a national survey of annual giving released in June, which shows a 2.3 percent drop in charity last year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. That marks the first time in seven years that contributions have dropped in inflation-adjusted terms and shows the affects of the recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The campaign gains by the Costa Mesa-based Federation permit budget increases of 15 percent to the Bureau of Jewish Education and Jewish Family Services, a counseling agency, which both rely on Federation fundraising for a portion of their operations. Among the other Federation-supported groups, financial support of college and high school social clubs declined and support for a teen task force and community chaplain eliminated, according to the group’s annual report.

"Our goal was to meet $2 million and we exceeded it," says Bunnie Mauldin, the executive director, describing the year as "unusual" due to the Sept. 11 attacks, a stock market downturn and increased financial needs by Israel.

Even so, the Federation set aside funds to recognize special needs in the local Jewish community, such as the national Hillel Foundation, for its Birthright Israel trips for college students; the Jeremiah Society, for people with developmental disabilities; the Jewish Educators’ Association, for ongoing professional development of religious school teachers and principals, and the Community Scholar Program, for countywide Jewish adult education programs.

Weiss, a former member of the allocations committee that divvies up Federation funds, describes the process as "wrenching" decision-making. The results, though, reflect the organization’s efforts to distribute funds equitably while closely examining the recipients’ operations, he says.

While raising a dollar may take twice as much effort as it did when the economy was booming, Israel’s crises opened hearts and wallets here more swiftly than experimenting with new approaches to appeals. "Five-hundred-dollar checks came from people who were small givers to the [Federation] campaign," points out former Federation President Charles Karp.

Karp, a retired businessman from Newport Beach who served three years as Federation president, concedes he fell short of his own fundraising goal. It took longer than anticipated, he says, to overcome hard feelings he encountered in people who previously responded to Federation appeals. "I thought we would get to $3 million. I’m glad we got as far as we did, but I’m sorry it didn’t go further."

Weiss believes the success of his own aspirations – — particularly at unifying the community — will get a boost from the visibility of a spacious new campus for Jewish agencies on Irvine’s outskirts adjacent to Tarbut V’Torah Day School. Construction is expected to start this fall. "I want it to be the blessing it should be," he says.