Community Briefs

Court Dismisses Suit in Two Airport Shooting Deaths

The families of two Israeli Americans killed by a terrorist at Los Angeles International Airport are not due any compensation from the city of Los Angeles, a federal judge has ruled.

The victims, Yaakov (Jacob) Aminov, 46, and Victoria Hen, 25, were at an El Al check-in counter when they were gunned down by Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet on July 4, 2002.

Hadayet was killed immediately after the shooting spree while wrestling with El Al security guard Arie Golan.

In dismissing the $87.5 million multiple suits against the city on March 29, U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler ruled that California law grants immunity to public agencies for failure to provide adequate police protection.

Attorney Richard Fine said the victims’ families were “devastated and shocked,” and he sharply criticized the judge and the city. He promised to take the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fine represented Aminov’s widow, Adat, their five children, and three children from Aminov’s previous marriage, all now living in Israel. He also represented Hen’s parents, who live in the Los Angeles area.

Hen had been working as an El Al ticket agent for less than two months when she was killed.

Also seeking compensation for emotional trauma and loss of income were Golan, the El Al security agent; Michael Shabtai and Moti Harari, who stood in line next to Aminov; and Harari’s 6-year-old daughter.

In an interview, Fine attacked the ruling in unusually harsh language.

“The court and city are saying that the value of an ordinary citizen’s life is zero,” he charged. “It is a shanda that violates every principle of humanity,” he said, using the Yiddish word for travesty.

Fine also claimed that Stotler mistakenly had ignored an applicable recent ruling by the California Supreme Court.

He was even angrier at the failure of city and airport police to provide protection, even though law enforcement agencies already had pinpointed LAX and the first July 4 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as likely terrorist targets.

“There was only one airport policeman on hand, and he was at the other end of the terminal,” Fine said.

However, attorney Douglas Knoll, who represented the city’s insurance company, said there had been a maximum deployment of police.

After a drawn-out investigation, the pace of which was criticized by Israeli officials, the FBI belatedly classified the airport attack as a terrorist act, fueled by Hadayet’s hatred of Israel.

Hadayet, a limousine driver who used two guns, a knife and an extra clip of ammunition during the attack, had no links to terrorist organizations, according to the FBI report.

A civil suit for compensation against Hadayet’s estate is still pending. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Anti-Semitic Harassment in ’04 Rises 32 Percent in Calif.

California Jews reportedly experienced more anti-Semitic harassment last year than in 2003, a worrisome trend fueled by hate groups, the Internet, the Iraq War and rabidly anti-Zionist attitudes on university campuses, experts said.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said in report Monday that California Jews reported 237 anti-Semitic incidents last year, compared to 180 in 2003, nearly a 32 percent increase. The group said the statistics appeared even starker in Southern California. Ninety-five Jews reported anti-Semitic harassment in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Kern, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties, up from 46 the year before, the ADL said.

“We’re seeing an increasing acceptance of anti-Semitism in every day conversation, in the classroom, playground, workplace and neighborhood,” said Amanda Susskind, ADL regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region.

Not all the news is negative. The number of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism, including assaults against Jews or the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, dropped last year both locally and statewide. However, the upsurge in anti-Jewish harassment, including verbal taunting and hate speech, more than offset the vandalism drop, Susskind said.

The widespread dissemination of anti-Semitism on the Internet by white supremacists and neo-Nazis has fueled discrimination against Jews, she said, as has the unwillingness of some secular Jews to confront hate speech. Unrelenting attacks on Israel and the occupation by leaders of the antiwar movement have also encouraged anti-Israel attitudes that often bleed into anti-Semitism, added Allyson Taylor, associate director of the West Coast Region of the American Jewish Congress.

However, David Lehrer, former head of the ADL, said things seemed to be getting better. The president of L.A.-based Community Advocates, a human relations committee, said that life for many Southland and other Jews appeared to have improved as societal acceptance has grown.

“I just don’t sense that Jews are under siege,” Lehrer said. “My sense is that if you were to ask Jews individually whether they’ve encountered anti-Semitism in their daily lives, the overwhelming majority would say no.”

A national ADL survey released concurrently with the report on anti-Semitic incidents reported a drop in the number of Americans holding strong anti-Semitic beliefs from 17 percent in 2002 to 14 percents today.

Among the anti-Semitic incidents in Southern California reported last year by the ADL:

Jewish Studies Flourish on Campus

While the headlines speak of confrontations between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students at California’s public universities, the number and variety of Jewish studies programs on the campuses have never been more bountiful.

Students can earn their doctorate degrees in Jewish studies at the University of California (UC) campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara. Master’s degrees are offered at Irvine, Santa Cruz and Davis. Stanford University, a private institution, also offers a doctorate in the field.

Within the last few weeks, a number of developments have added strength and further scope to these programs.

At UC Berkeley, the Jewish studies program received a $5 million donation from the Helen Diller family, which will enable the university to annually invite an Israeli professor to the campus for a full year’s stay.

The California State University system (CSU), whose nearly 400,000 students on 23 campuses make it one of the largest public university systems in the world, has announced the creation of a bachelor of arts major in modern Jewish studies, through a consortium of the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses. A fourth campus, at Long Beach, is scheduled to join this group next year, and the campuses at Sacramento, San Jose and Sonoma are expected to participate further down the road.

In addition, the state is establishing a teacher training program at the newly created Center for Excellence in the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at Cal State Chico; Chico’s reputation as a Jewish studies center has drawn such speakers as Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Holocaust education has been mandatory in California public schools for some time, but the quality of instruction in these courses has fluctuated widely.

Overall director of the three-campus program is professor Sam Edelman, who, teamed with his wife, Associate Dean Carol Edelman, has made the rural residential Chico campus, about 170 miles northeast of San Francisco, a vital outpost of Jewish studies over the past two decades.

"We believe students should have the option of learning about one of the oldest religions and cultures in the world," Edelman said in introducing the new degree program. "The history, culture, literature and politics of Judaism have had, and continue to have, significant impact on the world."

In an interview, the 54-year-old Edelman, whose roundish face is framed by a white beard, ascribed some significance to the fact that he was born in Altoona, Pa., one day before the official proclamation of the State of Israel. Though he said his parents were "very secular," Edelman absorbed "a wealth of Jewish heart" from his grandmother, and additional Yiddishkayt from an itinerant rabbi.

After receiving his doctorate at the University of Arizona, Edelman went to the Chico campus 23 years ago, hoping to introduce some Jewish studies but planning to leave after two years. However, he soon felt at home in "this natural place, distant from the tumult of the outside world," and was also impressed by the support of the non-Jewish faculty for his Jewish studies efforts.

While the new CSU Jewish studies major, which was seven years in the making, will start officially with the 2003 fall semester, a handful of students on each of the three campuses have jumped the gun by enrolling in the program during the current semester.

The bachelor’s program will consist of three basic areas: the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish studies. Majors on the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses will supplement classroom courses on their respective home campuses with online instruction from the other two campuses.

In the planning stage is a master’s of education degree program, focusing on Jewish education or Holocaust-genocide education, through a partnership among Cal State Northridge, Chico, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco.

At San Diego State, professor Lawrence Baron, director of the Lipinsky Institute for Jewish Studies, said that currently approximately 560 students are enrolled in courses that include Women in the Bible, kabbalah and modern history of the Middle East.

At San Francisco State, site of some of the most intense clashes between Jewish and anti-Israel students, the new major consists of 42-43 required units through courses in modern Hebrew, Jewish culture and society, history and religion. The current Jewish studies program, headed by professor Laurie Zoloth, offers 11 courses with an enrollment of about 175 students each semester.

John Gemello, San Francisco State’s interim vice president for academic affairs, welcomed the new major for giving "students from all backgrounds more opportunities to learn about the rich culture, literature, history and politics of the Jewish people."

Religion Blossoms for Bialik

Mayim Bialik’s nickname on campus is “Super Jew.” The down-to-earth 26-year-old who starred for five years in the hit sitcom “Blossom” has ceased acting, focusing her attention instead on Judaism.

She is currently studying neuroscience for her graduate degree at a prestigious Southern California university, which she declined to name. As an undergraduate, the actress majored in neuroscience and minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies.

Bialik, who relishes Hebrew grammar, said, “I love to learn about the history of a language, and how it became the voice of a new generation in Israel.”

Her devotion to Israel extends outside the classroom. “Every aspect of my life centers around Judaism and Israel,” she said. “Israel is my home. I kiss the ground when I am there.”

Unfortunately, Bialik said, aggressive anti-Israel groups fill the campus. She often finds herself defending Zionism and Israel to peers. “It is important to open communication with them,” Bialik said.

The former actress is active in Hillel, where she began a Rosh Chodesh group. Bialik also regularly writes for the Hillel newspaper on campus, in which she discusses Judaism and feminism. Recently, with a friend, Bialik redesigned the siddur used for Hillel services. She is also a Hebrew teacher at a Hebrew school in Beverly Hills.

In addition, Bialik is the musical director for the Hillel a capella group. However, she is modest about her talents. Whenever anyone compliments Bialik on her “perfect-pitched” voice, she blushes and says, “You should tell my grandfather. My grandfather is the one with the voice. He has the voice of an angel.”

Bialik is very close to her grandparents.

“My background has always humbled me. My grandparents were European immigrants who escaped the Holocaust. My mother’s mom arrived in America on the last boat from the Czech-Hungary border. Her family didn’t make it. My mother’s father and my father’s mother also escaped from Poland.”

Bialik didn’t go the way of many childhood stars, some overdosing on drugs, some in rehab, others never quite recapturing their glamorous youth. After impressing audiences in the 1988 film, “Beaches,” starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, Bialik was offered the title role in “Blossom.” The sitcom, which ran from 1991 to 1995, centered on the title character’s everyday challenges of growing up.

Looking back on the five years of the show, Bialik said, “Blossom was a wonderful experience for me. People often come up to me and really feel that they know me, because I was in their living room for a long time. I certainly would not be the same person I am today without the show.”

At the show’s completion, Bialik chose to take a different path in life: education.

“My parents were both teachers, and education was always significant in my family,” Bialik said. “When I decided to go to college, I wanted to be completely immersed in it. I wanted to experience what life was like without the distractions of show business.”

Bialik said her parents strongly believed in Jewish education and sent her to Hebrew school at Temple Israel of Hollywood as soon as she turned 4. She also attended camps Hilltop and Hess Kramer, where her love for Judaism deepened.

Although Bialik’s mother raised her family Reform, Bialik now considers herself Conservative.

Many members of Bialik’s family made aliyah to Israel, and Bialik visits Israel every two years. When she visited Israel this past June for a cousin’s wedding, things were different.

“We didn’t do anything. It is not the Israel that I want my kids to experience,” she said. “But it felt really good just being there, going to the supermarket, buying stamps.”

“I feel obligated to support my homeland both emotionally and financially,” she said. “So, I run tzedakah programs, donate trees to Israel, raise money for Israel.

Despite her busy schedule, Bialik tries to find “at least one moment in a day where I can stop and look in awe at the creations of God. Every day, I try to appreciate the universe, science, nature and the human capacity for compassion.”

Bialik, who has been dating her boyfriend for six years, hints that she will marry her “significant other” within the next couple of years.

The former actress is proud of all of her work for Israel and her love for Judaism, but she admits to a fault.

“You know,” she said with a chuckle, “I hate gefilte fish. I don’t have the Jewish fish gene. People always laugh that that is the most un-Jewish thing about me.”

Going Through Hell For The Dead

Natan Koenig was blotting up blood from the floor of the cafeteria named for Frank Sinatra at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Koenig worked for two hours on that 95-degree afternoon on July 31, arriving soon after a Hamas-made bomb exploded under a table, killing nine people, including two Americans, wounding some 90 others and shattering the lunchroom.

Koenig handed sheets of blood-drenched absorbent paper to a co-worker, who placed them in a plastic bag. The bag would be buried in the grave of one of the victims. According to Jewish tradition, a person’s soul resides in his blood.

An ambitious caterer, Koenig, 25, is also a volunteer with ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Disaster Victims Identification team. Members are best-known for showing up in their black skullcaps and yellow reflector vests at the scene of terror bombings to gather up body parts and blood for burial. Of the 604 volunteers — all Jewish men — 570 are Orthodox religious. "Only those with faith can cope with this work," said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA’s peripatetic guiding spirit.

Most ZAKA members are also volunteer ambulance medics; upon arriving at terror scenes, the first thing they do is treat survivors. They also go on search parties for missing persons. Much, if not most, of their time is spent helping the living. But ZAKA’s signature Jewish mitzvah is in showing "respect for the dead" — going to hellish lengths so people can be buried in a condition recalling, as much as possible, that they were "created in God’s image."

Yitzhak Shalita, a computer programmer, saved lives as an ambulance volunteer, but he felt this was a matter-of-fact sort of mitzvah, "nothing heroic." He wanted a more challenging test of faith and dedication, so he joined ZAKA. Now he climbs ladders to scrape bits of human flesh off walls. "With every scrape of the plasterer’s knife, you feel a sense of satisfaction," he said.

Shalita was sitting with Koenig and Shlomo Bloch, an Orthodox religious student, one recent night in ZAKA’s low-ceilinged, underground bomb shelter in Jerusalem that is its combination equipment room and clubhouse. It’s where local volunteers go after a terror attack to evaluate their performance, swap stories, argue, laugh — there’s a lot of black humor in ZAKA — and vent about the stresses of their day or night.

Shalita is the soft-eyed rookie of the trio (each is age 25), having joined ZAKA only this year. The first terror bombing he worked was the night of March 9, when a terrorist blew himself up at Jerusalem’s Moment cafe, killing 11 people. He got there a few minutes after the explosion, before survivors could even begin to wail. "I went inside, and everything was quiet except for all the cellular phones ringing," he said. "The walls were covered with blood. There were broken tables, plates, salads all over the floor — total chaos. People were lying in a pile, one on top of the other, in a pool of blood."

He saw a woman seated on a chair at the bar, elbow on the counter, head resting in her palm. A man sat next to her with his hand on the bar as if holding a glass. Their eyes were open. "They were both dead, but they looked as if nothing was wrong with them. It was the force of the blast that killed them — internal injuries," Shalita said.

He worked five hours at Moment, well into the middle of the night. He doesn’t remember thinking or feeling anything, just mechanically doing one task after another.

"First, we took the corpses that were more or less whole, put them on stretchers, covered them with black plastic bags, and took them out to the tent that the police ID unit had set up," he said. "Then we did the same thing with the large body parts. Then we went back to get the smaller body parts and put them in bags. Then we scraped off the little pieces of flesh that had stuck to the walls and surfaces. The street outside was just covered with them. Then we blotted up the blood with absorbent paper and put that in a bag."

In the identification tent, police and ZAKA volunteers try their best to "piece together the puzzles" of the corpses, as Shalita put it. They take into account where the body parts were found, their appearance and any clothing that might be on them. The final, decisive "piecing together" is done with DNA tests by forensic pathologists at a Tel Aviv laboratory. Bags of blood, flesh and tiny body parts that cannot be identified are buried with the dead.

Needing to talk to a psychologist is not something that strictly Orthodox Israeli men are going to admit, and it was especially hard for the men of ZAKA. "We’re the machos of the community," noted Bloch. (As a rule, the strictly Orthodox, or haredim, do not serve in the Israeli Army, seeing it as a corrupter of morals. The "modern Orthodox" do serve, and both volunteer in ZAKA.) But after the wives of several volunteers began complaining that their husbands had grown emotionally flat, detached from their families and normal pursuits, including marital sex, Meshi-Zahav compelled volunteers to go to group therapy at least once a year. In their ZAKA kit is the business card of a psychologist available for counseling 24 hours a day.

"When I went to group therapy I didn’t open my mouth to talk, but I listened, and it helped," Bloch said. "I found that I wasn’t the only one who had these reactions." Asked what sort, he replied, "If I smell cooked meat a day or two after a terror bombing, I run out of the house."

There have been no suicides or nervous breakdowns among volunteers, Meshi-Zahav said, but recently, an elementary school teacher in ZAKA — members come from various professions — took his class on a field trip to a cemetery. "He’s off duty with ZAKA now," Meshi-Zahav noted.

Bloch compares ZAKA to an "elite army unit," and it does have many of the trappings. Volunteers know they are the chosen few; not many people have the fortitude to perform this deed, and consequently they are greatly admired in the haredi community. ZAKA is also respected by mainstream secular Israelis, who tend to resent haredim for the draft deferments and welfare checks many receive for studying full-time in religious schools.

"Most haredim don’t go to the army, and they see soldiers and civilians being killed, and they want to do something to help," said Bloch, noting another motivation for joining ZAKA. Haredim are virtually all hardliners about fighting the Palestinian intifada, and when they are literally picking up the pieces of terror victims, they can be in a dilemma over what attitude to take towards a suicide bomber’s remains. "You see his body in a thousand pieces, and you want to tear it into a million pieces, but you don’t. You’re not God, and even the terrorist was created in God’s image, so you treat him just like anybody else," Bloch said.

The remains of suicide terrorists are given to the Palestinian Authority for burial, Meshi-Zahav said.

In the cafeteria at Hebrew University, there had been no suicide bomber, just a bomb in a bag; this was why the incident was so "clean," pointed out a ZAKA volunteer. "When there’s a suicide bomber, the body parts fly in every direction," he noted. The scores of wounded people had been evacuated, the seven people killed had been taken in plastic bags to the forensic lab, the blood had been soaked up. Koenig’s work was finished.

Getting into his car, he noticed traces of drops of blood on his forearms. "I thought I’d washed it all off," he said. "What I want now more than anything else is to go home and take a good, long shower."