Shas spiritual leader: ‘Hatikvah’ a ‘stupid song’

The spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party said at a party convention that “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, “is a stupid song.”

Rabbi Shlomo Cohen, head of the Council of Torah Sages of the Shas Party, made the comments Sunday at a party convention, the Israeli news website Walla reported. Walla also put a recording of the statement on its website.

Cohen told the convention that in 1955, at the ceremony appointing Yitzhak Nissim as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, those gathered stood and began singing “Hatikvah.” Cohen said he did not stand for the anthem, but that his popular predecessor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, did. Cohen said he asked Yosef why he stood, and Yosef replied that he said the Aleinu, a Jewish prayer recited while standing.

“A real man. Why did he say Aleinu? He didn’t want this stupid song to influence him,” Cohen said.

Cohen has served on the Council of Torah Sages since the founding of Shas in 1984.

In response to the airing of the video clip, Shas said, “No one will teach the wise man Shalom Cohen, who grew up all his days in Jerusalem, what Zionism is and what his relationship is to the Land of Israel. It is his right and duty to think that the sources of the Torah in Israel are 10 times more important than a poem composed only in the last decades.”

Shmira Imber, daughter of Naftali Herz Imber, the composer of “Hatikvah,” responded to Cohen’s remarks in an interview with Walla.

“It is stupid to say that,” she said. “I am sorry that the spiritual leader of Shas does not walk in the way of Rav Ovadia, his teacher and rabbi.”

Nov. 29 and Palestinian Statehood

Even as the sound of “Hatikvah” reverberated in the auditorium of the American Jewish University, where Los Angeles commemorated the 65th anniversary of the historic United Nations vote of Nov. 29, 1947, another U.N. vote was casting its shadows on our consciousness — the vote for Palestinian statehood, on Nov. 29, 2012.

The similarities between these two votes have been noted by other commentaries — I wish to stress the differences. In 1947, the dancers in Tel Aviv invited their Arab neighbors to join in a celebration of two-statehood; in 2012, the dancers in Ramallah did not invite their Jewish neighbors to any activity. On the contrary, they openly called for the expulsion of Israelis from Haifa, Jaffa and Afula.

But there is another key difference, perhaps more profound. Whereas in 1947, the Jewish people viewed the U.N. vote as their moral victory, in 2012, we find ourselves on the losing side of a moral defeat. Regardless of the political outcomes of the U.N. vote, it is fairly clear that, along the moral dimension, Israel, the United States and Canada are perceived to be on the wrong side of justice — a moral minority of 9 against 138. And it does not matter that some of the 138 states are gruesome dictatorships and others are victims of deceitful propaganda; the essence of justice rests to a large extent on societal perception of justice. And this perception, even among many Americans, depicts Palestinians as pleading for dignity, independence and hope, and those who reject their bid as operating out of pragmatic, but morally unconvincing, considerations.

Being in a moral minority is an ugly experience, totally foreign to the Jewish psyche since Nov. 27, 1947. And while it might not affect Israel’s security, it will surely affect Jewish students on U.S. campuses, whose intimidators will soon be emboldened with a new license to attack. It will also invigorate the boycott sharks, the first nibble of which was felt last week by Stevie Wonder, who was pressured to cancel a concert on behalf of the Friends of the IDF here in Los Angeles. And it will soon affect the whole structure of Israel advocacy; if, until now, truth had to be explained, from now on truth will need to be unearthed.

Worse yet, it is very dangerous for Israel to have many Americans think (and they do) that Israel forced them into a moral minority position, standing contrary to the ruling moral forces of the world. Americans, too, detest being in the minority.

What caused this defeat and what can be done to reverse it?

The greatest blunder was to keep the moral issue out of the debate. We discussed whether the bid would help Mahmoud Abbas or weaken him; would he appeal to the international court at The Hague or not; will it help Hamas or weaken it; whether it would advance peace negotiations or stall them; whether it would make Israel more flexible or less flexible; which Israeli party would benefit, and which would loose. We discussed every issue on earth except the one that matters in the moral arena: Are Palestinians entitled to, and ready for, statehood?

Abbas and his supporters were the ones who pressed this issue to its utmost, everyone else avoided it, including American and Israeli diplomats. And Abbas won because people are moved by right and wrong, not by analyses of consequences. (See my article, “Moral Dimension of Palestinian Statehood,” in the Jewish Journal, Sept. 30, 2011.)

Ironically, there was no reason for us to avoid the moral aspect of the issue, as this aspect has been and remains our strongest point in the debate: It can be summarized in one sentence: “A nation deserves a state to the extent that its  children are taught that their neighbors deserve one, too.”

It casts Israel’s objection to the Palestinian bid in a universally accepted moral principle and on established facts on the ground. Specifically, it highlights the fact that the world expects some sign, however feeble, that Palestinians are prepared to accept Israel as a permanent fixture in the Middle East, rather than use their statehood to prepare for renewed hostilities from a position of strength. Or for continued gnawing at Israel’s legitimacy from a higher diplomatic platform.

The damage is done, can it be repaired?

I think it can, by bringing Abbas’ intentions to the surface and making them central to the conversation.

What Netanyahu should do is this: Stop all settlement construction with no exception, and issue an ultimatum to Abbas: Construction will resume in three months unless we agree to meet face to face to discuss conditions for an “end of conflict,” based on 1967 lines (with adjustments) and the principle of  “two states for two peoples.”

Now, before you criticize my proposal as caving in to Abbas’ demands, and, as a play on words, let me note that, based on prevailing norms of Palestinian education, the chances that Abbas would be able to accept such an offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are extremely slim. The reason is simple: No Arab leader can utter the words “end of conflict” or “two states for two peoples,” no matter what. The former expresses acceptance of Israel as a legitimate and permanent state, which goes against everything Abbas was telling his people (in Arabic) and against everything Palestinians were brought up to believe. The last time the “end of conflict” issue came up in public was in the summer of 2000, as part of the offer that Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat during the Camp David Summit. The result was the outbreak of the Second Intifada; Arafat could not go back to his people and tell them that everything they were promised (in Arabic) was a fantasy and, as a price for freedom, Haifa, Jaffa and Afula will remain in Israel’s hands for eternity.

The same goes for the phrase “two states for two peoples.” The Palestinian mantra is always a “two-state solution,” never “for two peoples,” because admitting that Jews are a “people” would bestow credibility on the Zionist claim for a national homeland, thus rendering the Arab rejectionist movement irrational, if not immoral.

In conclusion, Netanyahu will not be risking a thing by demanding an “end to the conflict” and “two states for two peoples” — Abbas will reject the offer out of hand. At the same time, these demands are so morally compelling that even European politicians would not be able to brand them “unreasonable.” Abbas’ rejection will then restore to Israel the moral grounds it has always strived to uphold (Tzidkat Haderech).

In the remote case that Abbas should accept the offer, the benefit would be mutual: Palestinian children will hear, for the first time, that Israel can be accepted as a permanent and legitimate state — a monumental achievement for both sides and a major necessary step toward a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights: 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Arab-Israeli justice stirs controversy by declining to sing ‘Hatikvah’

The first Israeli Arab with a permanent appointment to Israel’s Supreme Court has come under fire for not singing Israel’s national anthem at a public court event.

Salim Joubran remained silent Tuesday during the singing of “Hatikvah” at the end of a ceremony swearing in new Supreme Court President Asher Grunis.

The anthem, which means “The Hope” in English, refers to a 2,000-year longing to return to the land of Israel and includes lines such as “A Jewish soul still yearns.”

David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said he would work to remove Joubran from his chair, including complaining to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.

Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud Party on Wednesday defended Joubran’s right to remain silent during the national anthem, saying his conduct was respectful and that as a non-Jew he should not be forced to sing it.

Ghaleb Majadale of the Labor Party, who in 2007 was the first Muslim ever appointed to the Cabinet, also came under criticism after saying in a newspaper interview that he would not sing the national anthem because it was written for Jews only. Majadale said he respects the anthem by standing up.

18 essential Hebrew words and phrases

In honor of Israel's 60th Birthday, we thought you should learn a few key words and phrases in Hebrew that will bring you closer to Israel's people and culture. This vocabulary will be useful on your next trip to Israel– or on your next trip to Ventura Boulevard. Delight your Israeli friends, teach your kids or impress a date. What better way to mark this milestone in Jewish history than to do a very Jewish thing: learn!

1. Shalom — [shuh-lohm] hello; goodbye; peace. Shalom Yossi, how are you? Probably the most uttered Hebrew word in the dictionary, its three meanings make it an indispensable tool for everyday conversation, as well as international peace summits.

2. Slicha — [slee-chah] sorry; excuse me. Slicha, I was here first. A polite word that'll come in handy when trying to get an Israeli's attention — or when trying to avoid a brawl.

3. Todah — [toe-DAH] thank you. Todah for the directions, bus driver. You should know how to thank people in every language; showing gratitude is a universally appreciated gesture — even with manner-deficient Israelis.

4. Naim me'od — [ny-EEM meh-ohd] very pleasant. Naim me'od to finally meet you. You can use this phrase to describe something, such as when the weather is very pleasant, but it is mostly used when meeting someone for the first time.

5. Lama? — [lah-mah] why? Lama don't you come visit more often? Israelis love to ask questions and challenge things and people. You may want to know how to do the same in order to fit in.

6. Yalla — [yah-lah] let's go; come on. Yalla, where is my food? You'll hear this word — which is actually an Arabic word adopted into Hebrew — said frequently, with impatience, with enthusiasm, with anger, in a song, in conversation. It typifies the impatient nature of Israelis — and Arabs for that matter.

7. Ma koreh? — [mah kor-EH] what's happening? Hi Tali, ma koreh with you lately? Young Israelis often substitute the more formal “how are you” with “ma koreh,” perhaps reflecting their interest in the recent events of a person's life as opposed to the person's feelings.

8. Chaval al ha zman — [cha-vahl ahl ha-Z-mahn] (slang) amazing; great. Thailand was chaval al ha zman. This phrase translated literally means “shame on the time” which makes no sense, but everyone — and we mean everyone — uses it to describe a wonderful experience. The next time someone asks you how your trip to Israel was, be sure to answer: chaval al ha zman!

9. Neshika — [neh-SHI-kah] kiss. Give me a big neshika. An extremely affectionate and warm people, Israelis tend to give each other abundant hugs and kisses, even if they have just met.

10. Ani ohev otach/Ani ohevet otchah — [AH-nee oh-hev oh-tach/AH-nee oh-hevett oht-cha] I love you (male to a female)/(female to a male). Dad, ani ohevet otchah. Saying I love you in a different language adds some spice to those three little words.

11. Neshama — [neh-sha-mah] soul; (slang) darling. Neshama, could you make me some coffee? A beautiful and spiritual word, you'll often hear both men and women using it as a term of endearment with each other, with children and with friends. It's just one example of how spirituality is a part of everyday life and speech in Israel.

12. Mishpacha — [Mish-PA-cha] family. I have a lot of mishpacha in Ashdod. Israelis are fiercely loyal to their families, which tend to be large in number. The country's tiny size means distant family members see each other much more frequently than American families, so you may find yourself being introduced to people way out there on the family tree.

13. Frier — [fry-ehr] (slang) sucker. Do I look like a frier to you? Being duped is one of the worst things that could happen to an Israeli. They don't like being taken advantage of or fooled, and they don't like being accused of doing it to someone else, so keep this word handy when haggling for prices at the shuk (bazaar).

14. Ezeh bassa — [eh-zah BAHS-ah] (slang) what a disappointment. Ezeh bassa, there's no cute girls at this party. Speak this phrase — another loaner from Arabic– within earshot of an Israeli, and you'll receive warm acknowledgement for being “in the know.” This is by far the coolest — though definitely not the only — way to express displeasure in Hebrew.

15. At chamuda/ata chamud — [aht chah-moo-dah/aht-ah chah-mood] you're cute (to a female)/(to a male). Hey you, at chamuda. If you want to hit on a gorgeous Israeli girl, you better know how to do it in her language. Israeli women are notoriously difficult to crack, but a compliment is a good start.

16. Chagiga — [cha-gi-ga] party; celebration. There will be an enormous chagiga in Tel Aviv on Independence Day. There is always a reason to celebrate in Israel — holidays, weddings, birthdays — and they sure know how to throw a party in the Holy Land!

17. Meshugah — [meh-shoo-gah] crazy person. Slow down, you're driving like a meshugah! You should have at least one insult in your arsenal in order to get through a trip to Israel, and this is a good one: not too offensive and applicable in many situations and to many people.

18. Tikvah — [teek-vah] hope. We still have tikvah that there will be peace. The Israeli national anthem is called “Hatikvah” — The Hope — and this word is so fundamental to the Jewish homeland's existence that every Jew in the world should know it.

WEB EXTRA AUDIO: Dikla Kadosh runs down the 18 words and phrases, with special assistance from AudioJew Jay Firestone.

Get ready to sing . . . Hatikvah!

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May Days!

There are a lot of holidays this month, and your school or synagogue probably has special activities for them. We’ve listed them below … but we’ve taken out the vowels. See if you can fill in the blanks and then match the holiday to the date we celebrate it on. Scroll down and see if you have the right answers.

1) L_G b’_M_R
2) M_M_R__L D_Y
3) M_TH_R’S D_Y
4) R_SH CH_D_SH _Y_R
5) Y_M H_SH__H
a) May 1
b) May 5
c) May 11
d) May 23
e) May 26

A Time to Celebrate

Israel turns 60 on May 14. Which, of course, means it is party time! On May 18, Los Angeles is having an all-day bash in the park. From 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Woodley Park (between Burbank and Victory boulevards) in Encino, hear music, watch a fashion show, enjoy tons of food, play games, enjoy rides, buy Israeli products and wish the Jewish state a happy birthday.

The Jewish Journal will be there with our friend, Anne Marie Balia Asner, author of the Matzah Ball Books series, including “Shmutzy Girl” and “Noshy Boy.” Anne Marie will be signing her latest book, “Klutzy Boy,” so be sure to stop by our Readers Lounge and take a break from the heat. Yom Hooledet Sameach Yisrael!

For more information, visit

Community Briefs

Soulful ‘Hatikvah’ Ends Wiesenthal Farewell

It was an unscripted, final moment that may have best captured the Monday memorial at the Museum of Tolerance for Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died last week at age 96.

The ceremony had been held outside. As long lines of mourners waited amidst rows of folded chairs to return into the museum, an elderly, white-haired man began singing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” in a loud, lone voice. A ripple of applause followed after Gedalia Arditti, a 77-year-old Greek Jew, belted out the song’s last word — “Yer-u-shal-a-yim!”

Then, Arditti yelled out: “I was there! And I walked those four miles — from the train to Mauthausen!”

He knew that it was for him and for the millions who didn’t survive that Wiesenthal had labored all his life.

The event drew more than 500, including politicians, diplomats, Holocaust survivors and their adult children. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered a short appreciation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, paused several times while introducing the evening’s speakers. A co-worker said it was a combination of emotion combined with very little sleep. Cooper had traveled to mourn Wiesenthal in Austria and attend his burial in Israel. And the center’s senior leadership was coping with the loss of not just its namesake, but a world figure.

“It’s a difficult evening,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center founder and dean, during the main eulogy. He said that Holocaust survivors “walked a little taller,” knowing that Wiesenthal was hunting their tormentors.

Hier also had a frenetic week, responding to media inquiries from around the world and attending the premiere of his new documentary, “Never Again,” which disturbingly chronicles the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. The special early screening at the Directors Guild in West Hollywood occurred the day that word came of Wiesenthal’s death. The museum staff, too, had scrambled, putting together an exhibit on Wiesenthal’s life. (See article about exhibit on Page 64.)

“I see that there is a great stirring in heaven,” Hier said at the memorial, “as the souls of the millions murdered during the Nazi Holocaust get ready to welcome Shimon ben Asher who stood up for their honor and never let the world ever forget them.”

The memorial attracted Argentine, Belgian, Croatian, Israeli, Spanish and Turkish diplomats. Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss said the Vienna-based Nazi hunter had been a longtime role model to young Austrians.

“They don’t need many heroes, they just have to pick their heroes wisely, and Simon Wiesenthal was one of them,” Weiss said.

A Buddhist peace group from Japan created the large floral arrangements for the memorial event stage. Seven boys from Yeshiva University High School carried in a Torah scroll named in the Nazi hunter’s honor. The ceremony ended with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and ended again in the hopeful notes of the survivor’s song. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Valley Cities JCC Makes New Death-Defying Escape

Like Houdini, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center — ever on the verge of a permanent shutdown — has made another death-defying escape.

For the past four years, executives at the JCC have fought without pause to prevent the center’s closure and sale by its debt-ridden parent, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. A couple months back, Valley Cities’ fortunes took a sharp turn for the better, when a buyer/savior stepped forward to purchase/save the property. That deal fell apart for undisclosed reasons.

Now, an anonymous donor has agreed to obtain the property from the center’s parent group for an estimated $2.7 million, insiders said. The benefactor has promised to help underwrite the costs of renovating Valley Cities.

Details of this latest effort were not immediately available. The earlier deal, like the present one, called for the renovation of Valley Cities, along with the possible relocation to the center’s property of an unnamed Jewish group.

At the time of the failed original deal, several developers had expressed interest in building senior housing on the property adjacent to the JCC.

The latest Valley Cities deal is in escrow and is expected to close soon, board President Michael Brezner told The Journal. He declined to release specific details.

Relieved center supporters have formed new committees for fundraising, programming and planning, he said. The hiring of a program director is also under consideration.

“I am excited about our rebirth in the community and more excited for the people of the community,” Brezner said. The donor “has secured our future for another 50 years.” — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Terror Alert System

As the High Holidays approach, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and New York are streamlining their security communications through the Secure Community Network (SCN), a new alert system tying 55 major Jewish organizations to local police and federal agencies.

“We’re the first community to take measures like this,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “We’re a unique community in this regard, because we’re a prime target.”

SCN uses e-mails, pagers, cellphones and home and office numbers to alert community leaders to potential terrorist threats. Alerts also can deal with rumor control regarding false threats. The information comes through SCN’s liaisons with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the New York City Police Department — and, soon, the Los Angeles Police Department.

When leaders of 55 major Jewish organizations are alerted by SCN, each group decides how quickly it will pass on the alert to its members. Individual synagogues, day schools and Jewish community centers are not designated as primary contacts for SCN alerts, which currently go only to major Jewish organizations.

“That’s a problem,” said Stephen Hoffman, SCN board co-chair and a former United Jewish Communities president. Because of these limitations, “we’ve encouraging local communities to get their own security going,” Hoffman said during a conference call last week with reporters.

SCN’s leadership includes former FBI Assistant Director Steven Pomerantz, a security consultant who last week met with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Local security concerns and security measures have increased due to the arrests in Torrance of two robbery suspects with alleged ties to prison-based Islamic gangs. Their targets included two Pico-Robertson synagogues and the Israeli consulate, according to sources.

The alphabet soup of groups backing SCN include UJC, the Anti-Defamation League, both AJCs (American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress) and the three major denominational groups — the Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Each pays a $200 annual fee toward SCN’s $500,000 yearly budget, which Hoffman said comes largely from private donations. — DF

Israeli Official Lauds Gaza Pullout Benefits in L.A. Visit

Top Israeli officials got an uncharacteristically warm reception at the United Nations this month, following Israel’s pullout from Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then returned to Israel, while Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited Los Angeles for two days to meet with Jewish and government leaders here.

Following a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, Shalom briefed a receptive audience of more than 100 invited guests on the immediate aftermath of the Gaza disengagement.

“There is a real change in the attitude of the world to the State of Israel, and we see it even in our relations with Arab neighbors,” Shalom said during the event last week at The Jewish Federation headquarters. Shalom described this change as the beginning of “the dropping of the iron curtain between Israel and the Arab world.”

He cited diplomatic breakthroughs with Pakistan and Tunisia as an immediate expression of this new attitude. “What needs to be done in these days is to strengthen the moderates and weaken the extremists,” he said.

Syria and Iran, however, still remain a dangerous threat, Shalom said, expressing concern over Iran’s potential to become a nuclear power: “Israel can’t live with the idea that this tyranny will have the nuclear bomb.”

Despite limited, yet hopeful Arab-Israeli diplomatic progress, Shalom also pointed to some “worrying” developments in Gaza, in particular the increased strength of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and ongoing arms smuggling.

“When we ended the withdrawal, we hoped the Palestinians would take the lead,” he said. Overall, though, the withdrawal presents “a glimmer of hope.”

Shalom concluded his talk to The Federation by announcing that Schwarzenegger has approved the opening of a California economic interests office in Israel. Approximately 20 other states already have such ventures.

During his visit, Shalom also met with community business leaders and with state officials to encourage investment in Israel and to strengthen California-Israel ties.

In addition, the governor and Shalom agreed to establish a joint committee to explore cooperation in the fields of high tech, agriculture, solar energy, the environment, biotechnology and homeland security. — Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Chabad Telethon Raises Record $6.2 Million

The 25th annual Chabad Telethon raised $6.2 million during its nine-hour run last week. As expected, the Sunday event was marked by young Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students dancing as if in a spiritual mosh pit, while the tote board numbers rose.

“Some of them had so much energy they came out every five minutes,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, West Coast Chabad spokesman and son of its leader, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin. “It was an incredible evening, an incredible outpouring of love and support from people all over the country.”

The telethon was broadcast live on the Internet and on four TV stations in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and on the Asian community-driven KSCI in Los Angeles. In the first hour of the telethon, radio talk show host and Jewish moralist Dennis Prager commented that “Chabad helps everybody, so I guess everybody can help Chabad.”

Eight hours later as the telethon wound down, the still-standing Prager donned a rebbe’s black hat, while playing the accordion. Other prominent faces who appeared included L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, attorney Marshall Grossman, actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Leonard Nimoy, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and The Moshav Band. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a taped greeting.

The telethon included 25th anniversary reflections and old TV footage of the May 1980 fire that destroyed Chabad’s West Coast house in Westwood and killed three people.

“That’s how the telethon was born,” the film’s narrator said.

The $6,216,193 raised eclipsed the just-under $6 million raised at last year’s telethon. The money will go to Chabad’s 200 community centers, schools and addiction-treatment centers and also to hurricane relief. — DF


First Person – Hatikvah in the Village

If someone had turned on the radio in Mulukuku, Nicaragua, on May 28, 2005, they would have heard “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. There is no Jewish community in this village of 7,000. In fact, there is not normally even a single Jew. But for one week at the end of May, there were 14 of us.

Our group was in the most impoverished region of Nicaragua as part of a joint project between The Jewish Federation and American Jewish World Service. The goal: to help alleviate poverty, hunger and disease among all the people of the world. It was an imperative that I took very seriously, and one that compelled me to step out of my Los Angeles life of privilege and material comfort into a world where those two terms are largely devoid of meaning.

Arriving in Mulukuku shocked my system in every conceivable way. It was swelteringly hot. There was no running water, only a well for drinking and cooking, buckets of rainwater for bathing, and a river for laundry. The sole means of garbage disposal was burning — a method we soon discovered was as dangerous as it was primitive, when one of the villagers was scorched by a combustible piece of plastic.

We drove five hours from the country’s capital. As I emerged, hot and sweaty, I felt a surge of adrenaline, of power. I was here to help, and, clearly, I thought, my help was desperately needed.

I was soon to find out how wrong I was.

Our group was hosted by Cooperativa Maria Luisa Ortiz, a grass-roots endeavor providing free health services, legal aid and domestic violence shelter to the community’s women and children. In a society where girls typically get pregnant at age 14, where spousal abuse is commonplace and where the resources to deal with these issues are scarce, the Cooperativa is a bastion of support.

Our volunteer work was to consist of two projects: the smaller, to paint several rooms in the compound and rustproof a security fence; the larger, to fortify the retaining walls of the clinic’s herbal medicine garden in order to prevent the plant beds from collapsing.

I was excited, enthusiastic to finally put to practice my belief in healing the world — with my own two hands. On some days, the work was near backbreaking. But more troubling than my physical exhaustion was a nagging sense that the people benefiting most from our work were not the villagers themselves, but us, the volunteers.

The first day in the garden, the agronomist instructed us how to properly dig a trench to accommodate a row of large concrete slabs that needed to be erected. Because we were used to working with our minds, and not our hands, we did it wrong.

By day two, we had mastered the task, but worked constantly under the guidance of the locals, who were experts in agriculture, but simply lacked the manpower to do the work as quickly. As I dug into the parched soil with the edge of my spade, I felt myself chipping away at all the stereotypes I held of the developing world.

I went to Nicaragua thinking I could make a difference in the lives of those I met. I like to think that, in some way, I did. But now I know that the major transformation this trip sparked was not in the villagers, but in myself.

I joined this mission because I had an innate sense of obligation. Before I left, the people of Mulukuku were the faceless recipients of my personal need to foster social justice. Soon, though, I learned people’s names, heard their laughter, looked into their eyes. Natalie has beautiful, precocious twin daughters. Michael has the curious, adventurous spirit of a child. Noel has the charisma of a politician. That’s when I realized — poverty is not the face of a stranger, but the face of a friend.

Now that I am back in Los Angeles, I feel a new sense of obligation to help others personalize a typically anonymous epidemic, to see themselves reflected in the eyes of someone less fortunate.

On May 28, 2005, our group was invited to appear on Mulukuku’s sole radio station. The host asked us to choose several songs to sing. Without hesitation, we included “Hatikvah.” We were all proud that our Jewish values had led us to this village, had motivated us to look beyond ourselves, had instilled in us a sense of moral duty. As our voices rang out through the static of radios all over the village, I thought of the likelihood that the Israeli national anthem be broadcast in Nicaragua, and smiled. Anything is possible.

Keren Markuze is a television writer and producer in Los Angeles.