Bearing witness a world away from L.A.


Two weeks ago, The Journal published an essay by Janice Kamenir-Reznik, founding president of the nonprofit Jewish World Watch, as she and two other JWW leaders departed for a two-week trip to Chad to visit Darfur refugees. As a coalition of about 60 Los Angeles-area synagogues, JWW’s mission is to educate and advocate on issues of genocide and egregious violations of human rights. It also works to provide relief to survivors of genocide.

In Chad, women in the refugee camps face danger of assault and rape by the Janjaweed marauders — as well as other rebels and even some Chad locals — when they venture out to collect firewood. To reduce this risk, JWW has been raising funds to provide two refugee camps — Iridimi and Touloum — with solar cookers. These low-cost aluminum-covered cardboard instruments are manufactured in the camps, are self-sufficient and have proven effective in keeping the women safer.

To evaluate their program, Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Solar Cooker Project director Rachel Andres traveled first to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, to meet with officials from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. They then traveled with humanitarian workers, as well as Chadian environmental and refugee advocates, as they visited the Iridimi and Touloum camps, where more than 10,000 cookers are now in use. They met with tribal leaders and with more than 100 women who use the cookers. They listened to stories of hardship and triumph over unimaginable tragedy. The following are excerpts from e-mails the travelers sent home while en route:

N’Djamena, Oct. 15

The average life expectancy here is 47 years old, I can tell you that I have not seen one older person anywhere! I am 45 years old, and because of sheer luck or fate I was born in Los Angeles, as were my husband and my children, and based on life-expectancy rates in the United States, I should have many more years of life to experience. But the children here, the smiling beautiful children in their school uniforms, waving to us on a street corner — what chance do they have?

— Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug

N’Djamena, Oct. 16

While “touring” N’Djamena, Derk [Rijks, the solar cooker project founder] wanted to give a message to someone who happens to live in the poorest section of town. We were dropped off …[and] walked along an endless river of garbage: plastic bags, trash, bugs, empty containers, a few goats roaming, small fires burning … words can’t describe the smell and sight. On one side of us was the garbage with children walking across it and even wading into it, and on the other side were dung huts where families live in 10 x 10 hovels. There were a few children roaming about, some barefoot, as well as a woman braiding another woman’s hair, a skinny dog sniffing around for something to eat and finally the home of Martine.

Martine is a beautiful, poised, sweet woman who was so gracious and pleased to see us. It was putting this beautiful face and sweet personality to the reality of this slum-like living that was completely devastating. The realization that people were living, literally, on top of this trash dump hurt to the core of my being. This country and its people are supposed to be in good shape compared to Sudan … and we haven’t even arrived at the refugee camp yet.

— Rachel Andres

Iridimi, Oct. 18

Today we visited the Iridimi refugee camp, where our Solar Cooker Project was launched 18 months ago. The sense of being, literally, a world away, finally holding the hands of the women working to manufacture the solar cookers and speaking with the Sudanese refugees about how our project has impacted their lives for the better is something I will never forget.

Iridimi itself reminds me of how I picture the “neighborhood” where our

Post-Trip Speaker Series Dates

Nov. 2

Who: Rachel Andres
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks

Nov. 3

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 8:45 a.m.
Where: Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino

Who: Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug
When: 9:30 a.m.
Where: Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village

Nov. 5

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles — co-sponsored by Temple Beth Am and Temple Emanuel

ancient Israelite ancestors lived in Egypt. Low mud-brick buildings, some thatched-roofs, little vegetation, and roaming donkeys — truly a biblical scene resulting from contemporary inhuman behavior.

We began our day with an incredible meeting — we were ushered into a room of 20 “elders” of the camp, sitting on mats, dressed in long white gowns and tall turbans. These are the leaders of the Iridimi camp, and they were invited to meet with us to discuss the project. I have to say that I was terribly intimidated by this group, as I’m sure they have never seen three white Jewish women from Los Angeles (who, while trying to dress appropriately for our guests, ended up looking like Golde, Tzeitle and Hava!), let alone engaged in peer-to-peer conversation with them! But they were gracious, respectful and expressed extreme gratitude for the work we have done for their benefit and for the benefit of their families.

The other surprising thing was their willingness to listen to our “moderator,” Marie Rose, who, with Derk, now heads Tchad Solaire, the local organization formed to run the project. Just as we watched these men “shoo” the three women leaders of the camps to the back of the room, they listened as Marie Rose led the 2-hour long discussion, answered their questions and engaged them in sometimes difficult conversation. Finally, we three Jewish feminists took great pride and pleasure in witnessing the young Madame La Presidente des Refugies speak up from behind the rows of men and express her opinions about the usefulness of the project and her disagreement with some of the opinions expressed by the men. I believe we are witnessing a real cultural change, both in terms of empowerment of women in this society, as well as a grudging acceptance by the men. But isn’t that just history repeating itself?

My last thought is about kindness. As I sat on the dirt floor of two different “homes” this afternoon, I witnessed a kind of dignity and kindness that I will never forget. How do people who have lost so much — family, community and property — continue to offer to the stranger who enters their home whatever little food or shelter they have? Without a second thought to their own needs, these participants in our evaluations opened their homes to us, provided us with food and drink and gave us entry into their lives.

Olga Bitterman’s story: Survivors helping survivors


When Olga Bitterman, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, found out that another survivor needed help, she knew what to do. For a year, Bitterman left money in the other survivor’s mailbox without leaving a trace of its origins.

Only later, after watching for the anonymous donor, did the survivor in need — an elderly woman with heart problems — discover that it was Bitterman coming to her aid.

“A lot of people are proud,” Bitterman said, “but they need help.”

Bitterman lives in a beautiful, two-story, three-bedroom house in the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park. Sitting in her study at a dark wood table, in front of a bookcase filled with Hebrew tomes, Bitterman spoke about the need to help sick and destitute Jews, especially Holocaust survivors.

“We survived so much,” said Bitterman, wearing a flowered silk housedress and pearl earrings. The nightmares and terrible memories of the war haunt survivors even more as they grow older, she added. What makes matters worse is that many survivors suffer alone. “They don’t have aunts, uncles, nobody,” Bitterman said.
About four years ago, Bitterman and some survivor friends founded a group to help local Jews in need. Today, she and a handful of volunteers run the Los Angeles Ladies Bikur Cholim. All women, they provide food, funds and company to the poor and sick. They have never turned away anyone who has asked for help, Bitterman said.

Bitterman grew up the eldest of four siblings in the small city of Svaljava, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. After graduating from high school, she worked in her family’s textile business until the Nazis deported her, then 20 years old, to Auschwitz. Her job at the camp was to organize the clothes of the dead who had been sent to the gas chambers. After nearly a year of enduring this “hell,” as she called it, she was liberated by the Russians.

Bitterman went home after the war, hoping to find surviving relatives. She found no one. Soon after, she met Henry Bitterman, the man who would become her husband. The couple had two children, and in 1962, to escape communist oppression, the family moved to Los Angeles, where a cousin was living.

Olga Bitterman got a job downtown, packing men’s neckties for delivery. Her husband found work as a painter. The couple eventually bought a grocery store, which they managed for seven years. Then, they bought a wood factory, which their children now run. (Henry Bitterman, having suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago, remains bedridden and unaware in an upstairs bedroom.)

When Olga Bitterman helps survivors today, she does so in a way that preserves their dignity. After all, that is what her parents taught her to do. Bitterman recalls that when she was a child, her mother would prepare packages of Passover food for the poor. Her mother would then instruct Bitterman to covertly place the packages at the doors of the needy. Bitterman’s father, too, used to secretly slip money into the jacket pocket of a poor man at synagogue, so the man could buy food for Shabbat.

This — a mother’s lesson, a father’s example — the Nazis could not take away.

For information on Los Angeles Ladies Bikur Cholim, contact Shuly Berkowitz at (323) 933-1017.

Spirit and Chocolate Top Temple Emanuel Installation


There was chocolate and music last week when Sue Brucker was installed as president of Temple Emanuel’s board of directors at Shabbat Unplugged. Amid the singing and Shabbat rituals, Brucker was applauded for her talents as a leader, and her commitment and dedication to getting any job, no matter the task, accomplished.

The services were filled with those who enjoy the upbeat Shabbat melodies of singing and celebration Temple Emanuel has become famous for. Known as a “go-to person,” Brucker is always the first to achieve any goal, take on any task and commit to any cause. Brucker, along with her mother-in-law Rita Brucker, will be honored at the Women of Sheba Achievement luncheon later this month and is the immediate past president for the Beverly Hills High School PTSA. She also received the Humanitarian of the Year from Amie Karen Cancer Society. Her husband Barry is on the Beverly Hills City Council and was the former president of the Beverly Hills School Board.

Big Fun in Big Apple

Leaving Los Angeles and spending a month at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York this summer was a fun and rewarding experience for five Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) students. The teens met and mingled with other Orthodox students in New York City, taking in the sights and enjoying the Big Apple. The five students, Michael Bank and Jesse Katz of Los Angeles, Marlon Schwarcz of Beverly Hills, Joel Shuchatowitz of Tarzana, and Netanel Zilberstein of Encino stayed in dormitories on YU’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights.

Students spent mornings studying Jewish topics, and in the afternoons chose between “The World of Finance and Investment,” a practical experience establishing and analyzing a portfolio of investments and working with traders, financial planners and entrepreneurs; “Explorations in Genetics and Molecular Biology,” a laboratory experience introducing students to the theory and techniques of molecular biology; and political science/pre-law, which exposed students to politics and law through the lens of current issues and by taking trips and hearing from speakers around New York City.

The YULA students toured the area attractions, including a Broadway show; the Museum of Natural History; Six Flags Great Adventure; a Mets game; a double-decker bus tour; a visit to the World Trade Center site; and a tour of YU’s campuses.

“It was great to have an opportunity to feel the YU experience,” said Zilberstein, the first of his siblings to go to college.

He said spending the month at YU took some of the mystery out of the college experience: “You get to feel like you are a college student, taking real college classes.”

Students also spent several days in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting the Capitol building, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Spy Museum and spending Shabbat in Silver Spring, Md.

“Many of the students are interested in YU, but want to see more than they would if they just came for a tour,” explained Aliza Stareshefsky, program director.
For more information about next year’s program, e-mail summer@yu.edu.

Rabbi on Board

The Olympia Medical Center recently added Rabbi Karen L. Fox to its board of governors. The group is comprised of 15 community leaders and business executives, and recommends and implements hospital policy, promotes patient safety and performance improvement while helping provide quality patient care.
“We are honored to have someone with Rabbi Fox’s prominence join our board of governors,” board chairman Dr. Sharam Ravan said. “I know that she will be an asset to Olympia Medical Center as we grow to meet the needs of the community.”

Fox, who has served at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for nearly 20 years, graduated from UCLA in 1973. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received her ordaination there in 1978. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology as well as a doctorate of divinity from Pepperdine University, and is a licensed marriage and family psychotherapist. She published a user-friendly guide to Jewish holidays title “Seasons for Celebration” and has authored numerous articles about women’s experiences and Jewish thought.

Kids Raise the ‘Roof’

The Children’s Civic Light Opera (CCLO), one of the Los Angeles area’s original and longest-established performing arts programs for youth, ages 7-17, celebrated its 19th year with a stellar production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Parents and friends shepped naches as 40 talented and dedicated kids rehearsed for eight weeks to present the Broadway-style production complete, with professional sets, costumes, sound, lighting and a live orchestra. Their show was a treat for theater-goers who sat awed by the kid’s spirited performances.

“‘Fiddler’ is a rare and beautiful gift,” CCLO’s founder and artistic director Diane Feldman Turen said. “It is an incredibly powerful piece of theater overflowing with an abundance of learning opportunities on multiple levels. Its universal themes allow us to address and examine the opposing forces that drive our lives and it’s wonderful that our ensemble can apply what they’re learning on the stage and off.”

Spectator – A ‘Return’ With Echoes


Sonia Levitin’s musical, “The Return,” based on her novel of that name, revolves around Operation Moses, the mid-1980s airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews to Israel. But in many ways, this tale of escape echoes the Holocaust in its descriptions of prejudice and massacres in a region of the world that has since endured a genocide in nearby Rwanda, the scourge of AIDS and, more recently, a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

If these Jews had remained in Ethiopia, there might have been a second Holocaust, a point implied in “The Return,” which will be presented as a work in progress in previews this weekend at the MET Theatre before a planned run in the fall.

The Holocaust allusion resonates for Levitin, who was 3 years old when her mother escaped Berlin with her three children in 1938. Her mother is the inspiration for the wise older woman of the play, Weizero Channa, who vows to see Jerusalem despite her failing health.

While Levitin’s novel, “The Return,” won the PEN Award and National Jewish Book Award, one might ask if this is apt material for a musical.

Levitin had never written a play or even lyrics before, but calls the musical the “most wonderful, creative form,” an egalitarian template that can depict and appeal to anyone.

The subject matter is especially topical at a time of national debate over immigration. The Falashas, of course, were immigrants, as well, and became Israeli citizens roughly 20 years ago.

The origin of the Falasha Jews is “shrouded in mystery,” Levitin says. Her score includes a song about the Queen of Sheba, said to be the matriarch of the Falashas, who likely gave birth to some of King Solomon’s children some 3,000 years ago.

Although the show — directed by Bo Crowell, with choreography by Donald McKayle and music by William Kevin Anderson — contains a fledgling romance, with Channa acting as matchmaker, the musical is mostly about the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Israel. Along the way, some are beaten; others are killed. But the immigrants’ spirit, embodied in the play’s title, cannot be extinguished or denied.

“The Return,” will be presented May 20, 3 p.m., and May 21, 7 p.m., at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, Hollywood, (323) 957-1152.

Why the iPod Generation Cares About Darfur


The car horns sounded like a shofar practice session, a cacophony of long blasts and short toots with no particular meaning or purpose. And, thankfully, there was no traffic accident to be found.

The blaring noise was instead a response to scores of protesters at the Federal Building in Westwood, who were staging a rally to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

The power of the rally was not necessarily its numbers, but its message: The “apathetic youth of America” are, well, not so apathetic. The event was coordinated by Teens Against Genocide (TAG), a group of greater Los Angeles high school students dedicated to raising awareness about the situation in western Sudan. These teenagers joined the group, and the cause, because they feel so strongly about the issue.

Perhaps the most intriguing question regarding activism for Darfur is: Why teens? Why have teenagers taken a leading role in this pressing issue? Aren’t we so busy with Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, and socializing?

“Teens are starting to see beyond their immediate surroundings,” said Shira Shane, a senior at New Community Jewish High School who founded and leads TAG. “Teens haven’t been weathered by the negative world. They believe in the possibility rather than the impossibility.”

But don’t adults have more money, more influence and more political clout?

Perhaps, but one thing that students have in abundance is the urge, especially after sitting in classes all day, to be active: to get out there and run a mile, or run for office — or both.

More likely, however, teenagers contribute to such humanitarian causes as a test of the power of the will, flirting with the idea that they actually can make a difference with a little initiative. To some students this initiative is wearing a T-shirt or a green wristband to school, sparking conversation with others about the issue. To others it means writing letters to newspaper editors and political officials, letting them know that people care about the issue. Still others channel their energy toward planning events, much like the TAG rally on April 23 at the Federal Building or the rally in Washington, D.C., on April 30.

It has always been the nature of teenage life to be active, to experiment with the power of persuasion, and to test limits. What make this generation of adolescents unique is its access to, and familiarity with, technology. Now, perhaps the connection between those white iPod cords and the mass killings in Darfur isn’t so obvious. But consider that this generation of youth has been brought up with immediate and uninhibited means of communication that allows them not only to keep up with current events, but to use this technology in pursuit of a more just and peaceful world.

It could be argued that technologically advanced American teenagers have everything at their disposal to make a dent in the political surface — everything, that is, except for a direct connection to events outside their immediate circle. And, obviously, this isn’t about high-speed Internet. It involves a moral consciousness and a dedication to basic human rights. Many teenagers, especially Jewish ones, construct this link through the Holocaust and other genocides of recent history. Many more have found the connection internally. And despite over-scheduled lives, they have chosen to make it their cause.

Those involved in TAG, and many other supportive youths, understand that being busy is no factor in saving lives.

In fact, TAG and other like-minded organizations fit well with the teenage focus on school and socializing. Activism gives students the chance to apply to the real world the knowledge they are acquiring: from history and political science courses at school, from an inspirational teacher or from religious values. And, when students take their knowledge to the streets (both literally and figuratively), they are able to build a network of friendships that transcends the boundaries of a clique or a school.

Joining TAG isn’t about building a good transcript, either. For high school seniors, college applications had been submitted months before TAG materialized. And, for underclassmen, taking action is far more important than having that extra club or those extra hours of community service. The efforts to save lives, and to educate others about this genocide, simply cannot be logged in such form.

“Whatever the issue is, teens will try to pursue it,” Shane said. “Teens will push.”

Then, maybe, even more people will push on their horns when passing a rally for Darfur, leaving in the air an echo that will last as long as people are listening.

TAG member Jeff Goodman, is a senior at University High School, where he writes for the school paper.

 

The Circuit


Victory Call

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayal met recently and placed a call to congratulate new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They, along with Ayal’s wife, Anne, extended congratulations on the Kadima Party victory. Photo by Duncan McIntosh.

A Sheba Success

The evening was dressy, festive and upbeat recently when Friends of Sheba Medical Center honored three outstanding Angelenos at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The organization, which does so much to fulfill a promise of excellent medical care in Israel, didn’t disappoint when supporters turned out in record numbers to show their loyalty to honorees and the group’s devotion to its cause. The Rabin Philanthropy Award was presented to community leaders Anna and Max Webb; the Humanitarian Award went to stage, screen and television star Jason Alexander, and Dr. Michael Vermesh, noted infertility specialist, received the Medical Visionary Award. Lynn Ziman and Louis Milkowski, gala dinner co-chairs , said the proceeds of the event, in excess of $4.5 million, will be directed to the Center for Newborn Screening, which will test every baby born in Israel (150,000 annually) for 20 genetic diseases. Every hospital in the country will participate using test kits provided by Marilyn Ziering, and her late husband, Sigi. For information, call (310) 843-0100, ext. 1.

Mitzvos competition

This year’s “Chidon Mitzvos” competition was held recently at Emerson Middle School. More than 1,000 people attended the finals of the annual competition, in which students learn and are tested on the Sefer Hamitzvos of the Rambam. The 150 finalists are all students from Lubavitch cheders, yeshivas and day schools from around the world who scored highest in their home city’s competition. Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, principal of Cheder Menachem Los Angeles, hosted the competition, and Rabbi Baruch Sholomo Cunin, director of Chabad of California, and Rabbi Ezra Schochet, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad of Los Angeles, commended finalists for their diligence in learning the Sefer Hamitzvos. Internationally acclaimed entertainer Lippa performed a rousing medley of songs, much to the delight of the audience, many of whom rose to their feet to sing and dance along. But the centerpiece of the event was the high-energy “Jewpardy” competition, in which the finalists wowed the audience by answering complicated questions on knowledge from the Sefer Hamitvos.

The Chidon Mitzvos was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directive that all Jews be united by learning the halachos set down in the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos.

Glitter, Glamour and Gehry

Famed architect Frank Gehry kicked off his new jewelry line at Tiffany’s recently in Hollywood fashion as the rich and famous congregated on Rodeo Drive. Gawking and glitz went hand in hand at the event, wall to wall with stars, celebs and Hollywood heavy hitters. Talk show/comedy diva Ellen DeGeneres, and her significant other, Portia de Rossi, were among the cache of stars who extended cordial hellos and mingled with fans. Grammy award-winner John Legend teamed with surprise guest Patti LaBelle to blow the audience away with a rocking performance enjoyed by such luminaries as Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Christina Ricci, Owen Wilson, Lawrence Fishburne, Mira Sorvino, Anjelica Huston, Quincy Jones and Wolfgang Puck.

Gehry’s new collection consists of an unusual array of materials, such as black gold, pernambuco wood and cocholong stone. Along with sterling silver, diamonds and gemstones, the collection is based on motifs inspired by structural elements, childhood memories, renaissance masters and contemporary painters, thus resulting in arresting shapes and forms that have a kinetic rhythm and energy.

 

Come Fill Fatima’s Cup With Hope


Ten days ago, I was in the Al Serif Camp in Darfur, Sudan, with Fatima, the girl you see in the photograph. She lives there with 15,000 other refugees.

Not only has she lost her home and much of her family, she has seen horrors no child should ever imagine, let alone endure. Throughout Darfur and Chad, there are thousands upon thousands just like her.

What chills the heart at Al Serif and the other camps like it is the awful silence that permeates the tents. One is struck by the utter desolation. The little girl’s outstretched cup waits for something other than her own tears — for water, for hope. No one can live without a measure of both.

As Passover approaches, I gaze at her photograph, reminded of the cup of Elijah. It overflows with the promise of redemption, but Fatima’s cup is empty.

Our seders summon our people’s ancient memory. We experience Passover ke’ilu, as if we were slaves in Egypt. We eat matzah to recall our affliction, and we retell the timeless story of what it is to be oppressed. But in the end, there is rejoicing, because our people were redeemed.

In Jewish tradition, the seder is more than a ritual. It seeks to awaken not only our memory but our conscience. Passover is not an exercise in nostalgia. It calls us to identify with those we once were: the destitute, the disenfranchised, the defenseless. It requires this little girl, Fatima, to sit at our table, where she can be seen and heard, where there is a cup not only for Elijah but for her.

Look at her photograph. She is a child no different — except for her misfortune — than your child or mine. She is a citizen of the world, a bearer of the divine image.

When our cups overflow, how can we forget that hers is empty? When we raise the matzah and announce, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” do we mean it? How can we open the door for Elijah, and close it on children like Fatima?

The crisis in Darfur is not only political but humanitarian. Admittedly, medicine, food and shelter are not all that are needed in the Sudan. But there is no arguing with the mitzvah of saving lives, reducing suffering and bestowing hope for a better day, even if it seems distant.

The Israelites were enslaved for generations. But one day, after the long night of darkness, the sun came up, and they went free.

A Chasidic rebbe, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz, would leave the cup of Elijah empty. He would then invite his guests to fill it with wine from their own cups, to symbolize that redemption will not come unless each of us helps to bring it.

Here in our comfortable homes, at our ample tables, we cannot wait for the day of redemption. It is up to us to fill Fatima’s cup. And perhaps, we will find that the more we share at this Passover season, the more we will have to celebrate.

Contributions for humanitarian aid can me made to International Medical Corps, 1919 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300, Santa Monica, CA 90404-1950, or MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, 1990 S. Bundy Drive, Suite 260, Los Angeles, CA 90025.


Rabbi Lee Bycel is special adviser for global strategy, International Medical Corps, and senior moderator at the Aspen Institute.

The Graves Of Sudan


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With Thanksgiving here and Chanukah just around the corner, most of us are reflecting on all there is to be thankful for, embracing our freedom as Jews and Americans. As we share our thanks this year and celebrate the holidays, it is my hope that more American Jews will think of those who are denied what we have come to expect as basic human rights, particularly those who are suffering from genocidal campaigns in Darfur, Sudan.

In this remote region, more than 1.5 million African tribal farmers have been violently driven from their homes by the government of Sudan and the militias they armed, called Janjaweed (evil men on horseback). Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence that has taken at least 100,000 lives.

As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing. The epithet “never again” must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact, Jews must be the guardians of this call for action, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people.

I went to Darfur in August to bear witness, to assess humanitarian needs and to ensure that funds provided by the American Jewish community are being and will be used effectively. I met many of the displaced farmers and listened to their chilling stories.

The government bombed their villages; men on horses rode in, often yelling ethnic slurs and shooting wildly. They stole; they raped; they killed. They stuffed wells with dead bodies or carcasses and burned villages to the ground.

I met Fatima; her five children were all ill with life-threatening diarrhea. I met a 10-year-old boy — clinging to the leg of a medical assistant — who saw his parents and two brothers shot dead.

I met the mother of twins who gave birth the day the militia came to her village. She saw her brother, aunt and uncle killed but managed to escape with her family, her newborn babies tucked into a straw mat.

They and over a million others fled in terror and came gradually to camps being set up to receive them — now about 158 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of California) containing tens of thousands of families packed into tent cities, fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom and depression. People whose simple agricultural life had allowed them to remain self-sufficient, now have no means of support.

Currently, the situation is deteriorating. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, and there is not enough food. There are too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea.

Living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems. Mortality rates — already at about 10,000 a month — could rise suddenly.

Some of the Janjaweed have been outfitted by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women still disappear or are raped when they venture out to collect firewood to use for cooking or to sell to buy food.

The U.S. Congress labeled the crisis genocide in July, and the Bush administration followed suit in September, but members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly Russia, China and Algeria, continue to block sanctions and other strong actions, creating deadlines and weak resolutions that are unenforceable and unheeded. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that security is declining and violence is on the upsurge.

In a reversal that demonstrates that international pressure can make a difference, the Sudanese government reluctantly agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to monitor the tenuous cease-fire and escort aid convoys, but they have no mandate to protect civilians. The Sudanese army and police continue to attack camps and forcibly relocate internally displaced people.

Recent reports describe government forces burning shelters, smashing water pipes, beating and shooting people and refusing access to aid agencies. On Nov. 8, the Sudanese government signed a historical peace agreement, accepting a no-fly zone over the region and promising to disarm the Janjaweed and improve access to aid. The next day, more violence was reported in camps.

The United Nations is conducting an investigation to determine whether the crisis constitutes genocide. This marks the first time in the history of the Security Council that Article 8 of the Genocide Convention has been invoked, which is a most welcome occurrence, but it is not enough by itself. By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.

Confronted with the realities of a grim future, we must increase pressure on the U.S. government and international community to persuade the Security Council to do what must be done to end the violence and suffering. Sudan must be forced to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must be sanctioned until the Janjaweed is disarmed and the region is secured.

The African Union troops must be given an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to protect civilians. Should the no-fly zone over Darfur be violated, enforcement by NATO forces must be authorized.

Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed. Governments must do their part to ensure that the U.N. humanitarian programs are functioning at full capacity and meeting the vast needs. Support from individuals to nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance is also essential.

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) launched a Sudan Emergency Appeal in April to help meet these needs. To date, $500,000 has been raised to rehabilitate water sources, construct sanitation facilities and provide therapeutic feeding centers to care for the thousands of malnourished children. I surveyed these programs when I was there and left overwhelmingly satisfied that lives are being saved.

As a result of my assessment, AJWS is also providing educational and recreational materials and programs for orphaned children, zinc treatment for children suffering from diarrhea and because rape is being used as a strategic weapon against women and their families, we are providing reproductive health care and addressing the consequences of sexual violence against women. Financial support for these ongoing efforts is critical.

The Jewish response is growing. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, created a Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief that has raised about $170,000, and the Reform movement has spearheaded its own campaign, raising about $120,000. A number of Jewish organizations have joined us as members of the Save Darfur Coalition, a broadly diverse group of more than 100 faith-based and humanitarian organizations advocating for the people of Darfur, and other Jewish organizations are responding with humanitarian aid.

Until conditions are established that permit the voluntary, safe and dignified return of those displaced by the conflict and violators of human rights are held accountable, our diligence must not wane.

Leviticus teaches, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This holiday season, let us celebrate with our loved ones, but let us also resolve to do all that we can to end human suffering and prevent genocide whenever, wherever and to whomever it occurs.

Ruth W. Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization. For more information, to make a donation or take action, visit

Jews Aid in Quake Despite Iran Rebuff


Beggars apparently can be choosers — or so the Iranian
government seems to believe.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, which is
struggling to recover from the Dec. 26 earthquake that killed at least 20,000
people and damaged an entire region, has announced that it will not accept
humanitarian aid from the “Zionist entity.”

However, U.S. Jews and Israelis still are finding ways to
help the victims. And one of the few U.S. nongovernmental organizations running
relief on the ground is led by an Iranian American Jew.

Farshad Rastegar formed the Los Angeles-based nonsectarian
Relief International 14 years ago to aid victims of an earlier earthquake in Iran.
As an Iranian American Jew working in his native country, it’s “very
emotional,” he said.

Rastegar, who is planning to leave for Iran soon, said his
group has raised more than $150,000 for relief work in Iran, $65,000 of which
already has been routed to a bank there.

Like other Jewish humanitarians working in Iran, Rastegar
tries to keep politics out of the picture.

“Pain is the same everywhere, whether you’re in Bosnia in Sarajevo
and somebody’s shooting at you, or whether you’re in Chechnya,” he said. “A
bullet is a bullet, a child is a child and pain is pain. The religion, the
ethnicities, the national differences really dissipate in the face of these
kinds of tragedies.”

Rastegar’s religion is known to Iranian government
officials, and his group, which worked with professionals in Iran before the
earthquake, continues to be well received, he said. Despite the Iranian
government’s hostile attitude toward Israel and Jews, there should be no
problem in routing Jewish funds to those in distress, Haroun Yeshaya, head of Iran’s
Jewish community, said in a phone interview from Tehran.

“All Iranian people are going to be glad” to receive funding
from anyone in the world, Yeshaya said through Kamram Broukim, a translator in California.

Through his organization — the Fariborz “Fred” Matloob unit
of B’nai B’rith, named in memory of an Iranian Jewish boy — Broukim has raised
more than $50,000 since Dec. 28 for earthquake victims. The funds will be
directed to Iran’s Jewish community, which plans to use the money to set up a medical
clinic in Bam, the center of the disaster. Broukim is working with Iranian Jews
in New York and London to raise additional funds. About 18,000 of Iran’s 30,000
Jews live in Tehran; another 8,000 live in Shiraz. There are no known Jewish
earthquake casualties.

Despite Iran’s rebuff to Israel, at least one Israeli
nongovernmental organization is addressing the tragedy.

“I have a direct and open line to Iranians,” said Ra’anan
Amir, project manager of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian group that provides
domestic and international relief. Latet has sent “tens of thousands of
dollars” to earthquake victims, Amir said.

“We are welcomed, and we have the routes to come and work in
Iran,” he said.

Amir wouldn’t say whether Latet has people or equipment on the
ground in Iran, and he admitted that he has encountered patches of anti-Israeli
resistance along the way. However, he said, such resistance in Iran and
elsewhere comes from politicians or government officials, not from individual
citizens.

According to the New York Sun, Iranian citizens criticized
their government’s refusal to accept aid from Israel, which has highly trained
disaster relief teams that have assisted victims around the globe.

Asked if he thinks humanitarian good will will help bridge political
or religious divides, Amir said he doesn’t “fool with idealism.”

“In the first few days of every disaster like this one,
nobody thinks about any of these topics,” he said. “People are just looking for
a place to put their head at night, to get covers, to get something to eat, to
get something to drink and to find their relatives.”

If his presence happens to change some Iranians’ views of
Israelis or Jews, that’s great, he said. But he doesn’t know whether Latet’s
clients even know of the group’s origins — or what effect, if any, such
knowledge would have.

“I’m not going and carrying the flag with me,” he said.

Like other Jewish humanitarians, Rastegar said he is driven
by his faith.

“We’re the chosen people not for privilege; we’re the chosen
people to serve,” he said.

Ronni Strongin, spokeswoman for American Jewish World
Service, agreed, saying, “The Jewish people are compelled to step above hatred,
and we cannot stoop to the level of others. Jews must provide humanitarian need
to those that are in deep distress.”

The agency raised approximately $7,000 last weekend for
quake victims. The money will be used to purchase medical supplies, which will
be dispersed through Direct Relief International (DRI). DRI, which is not
related to Rastegar’s group, is seeking an Iranian partner to handle efforts on
the ground.

Strongin said her group received several angry e-mails from
Jews who believed that Iran, which is implacably opposed to Israel and has
persecuted its Jews, doesn’t deserve humanitarian aid from Jewish groups.

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC), the largest U.S.-based Jewish relief and welfare organization,
has not begun a fund for the earthquake victims.

“We haven’t been active and don’t have a presence to be able
to extend any kind of direct assistance, so we would have to work through
outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” said Will Recant, the JDC’s
assistant executive vice president.

In any case, he noted, “we haven’t had a response from the
American Jewish community” inquiring about the earthquake or asking if the
group was accepting funds.

Contributions can be sent to Relief International at “>www.ajws.org;
Latet,

Kosher Pig-Out


Imagine if hitting the restaurants was a mitzvah. For one day, at least, it will be. Finally, the guilt-free excuse to overeat you’ve been looking for. On May 4, the Sunday before Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), Eat-4-Israel, a campaign created by yeshiva high schoolers, will do just that — encourage people to patronize participating kosher restaurants. The restaurants will donate 10 percent of the day’s gross receipts to their choice of seven Israel-based humanitarian organizations that are endorsed by the campaign: Hatzolah, Bet Ashanti, Ezer Mizion, Save Our Soldiers, Yad Eliezer, Yad Sarah and ZAKA.

Eat-4-Israel was the brainchild of Monique Grunberger, a high school senior at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, who developed the idea with two local Yeshiva University of Los Angeles students, Yitz Novak and Zvi Smith.

“I was getting fed up,” said Grunberger, who in March was frustrated by the underwhelming response to a pro-Israel letter-writing campaign she aimed at senators on Capitol Hill.

In two months time, the trio of 18-year-olds enlisted a roster of North American restaurants, mostly Los Angeles-based businesses, including Pico-Robertson area destinations — Jeff’s Gourmet, Nagila Pizza and Chick ‘N Chow — and Pizza World and Mr. Pickles Deli in greater Los Angeles.

The high schoolers partnered with several organizations — including StandWithUs, UCLA Hillel, the Zionist Organization of America, Far West United Synagogue Youth, West Coast National Council of Synagogue Youth, HaBonim Dror and the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA — to promote the event. Smith also noted that the Bureau of Jewish Education, a Jewish Federation beneficiary agency, will contribute a $1,000 Israel Teen Leadership Seminar Grant, which will go toward advertising costs.

Grunberger, Novak and Smith — all of whom will be studying together in Israel next year — have short-term and long-term goals for Eat-4-Israel.

“Other than raising at least $10,000 for Israel,” Grunberger said, “I would like to see Jewish communities where this event is taking place come together, no matter what denomination, to help Israel. I would like to see this as an annual event.”

“The most basic reward of putting this together has been the experience of working with the community,” Smith added. “But it’s also very fulfilling to represent Israel. It’s nice to see that no matter where we are, we can stand with Israel.”

Eat-4-Israel will take place on Sunday, May 4. For a complete list of participating restaurants, go to www.mobilize4israel.org/eat4israel .

by Eric Silver Jerusalem Correspondent


If there is one thing Israelis have learned — from the twoand a half years of the present intifada and from all the battles that precededit over 54 years — it is that there are no surgical wars.

You can’t wage war without killing and maiming people, soldiersand civilians, whether by accident or design. Some die from friendly fire. Someare taken prisoner. And in the Middle East, the enemy fights dirty.

As United States and British forces suffered their firsttelevised setbacks this week, Israeli military commentators pointed thelessons. Not with glee but with a discernible whiff of “We could have toldyou.” And they did not flinch from saying the unsayable.

The American people, Avraham Tirosh wrote in Ma’ariv,learned about the horrible face of war.

“It got several awful examples of what awaits it,” Tiroshexplained. “Not a deluxe war, which it was perhaps mistakenly led to expect,not an easy drive to Baghdad, with the main adversary being the dust and thesand. But dead, wounded, missing, helpless captives and victims of murder.”

The mob, trampling the banks of the Tigris River on Sundayin search of American pilots, shooting into the reeds and setting them alight,Tirosh added, had never heard of the Geneva Convention.

“Nor did those who fired at the heads of captive Americansoldiers,” he wrote.  “And even if they had heard, the Geneva Convention wouldhave interested them as much as last year’s desert storm. Woe is he who fallsinto their hands.”

Writing in the same daily paper, Amir Rappaport warned:”From now on, the captives will serve as Saddam Hussein’s human shield. It iseasy to imagine a situation toward the end of the war with the Americansclosing in, when Saddam will make it clear that the moment he is attacked, thecaptives will die with him. It is very difficult to imagine what George Bushand his generals will decide if they face this terrible dilemma.”

Precisely because of situations like that, Rappaportexplained, Israel decided years ago to do everything to prevent the kidnappingof its soldiers. That was the reason, he said, why in 1994, an elite commandounit tried to rescue Nahshon Wachsman (the son of U.S. immigrants) fromcaptivity, even though the chances of success were known to be low. That was alsowhy Israel declared dead three soldiers captured by Hezbollah two and a halfyears ago, even though the Lebanese militia was still holding their bodies.

From bitter experience of what happens to POWs in Arabhands, Israel also questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s rush todenounce the Iraqis as war criminals for parading prisoners before the TVcameras. Their exposure to the media, argued Yoav Ben-David, who was held andtortured by Syria for a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, constituted a kindof insurance policy, however limited.

“The Americans,” he suggested, “still don’t realize that theIraqis will be careful not to hurt soldiers taken prisoner, photographed andseen by the whole world. Precisely because of that, it is important that theydo not hide themselves and look away, but rather be seen as much as possible bythe camera lens and even to smile and try to look good.”

Taking a longer view, Amir Oren argued in the liberalHa’aretz that TV shots of GIs, dead, wounded and taken prisoner, the image ofbloodthirsty Iraqis, would only intensify Bush’s determination to “Shock andAwe” them — and intensify the popular support for the war.

“This will be a turning point in the campaign for bothdomestic and international legitimacy for the war,” Oren predicted. “It willnot drive Bush out of Iraq the way Syria’s capture of navigator John Goodmandrove Ronald Reagan out of Lebanon or the downed Black Hawk helicopter droveBill Clinton out of Mogadishu.”

Similarly, Alex Fishman contended in Yediot Aharonot,Israel’s biggest-selling Hebrew daily, that Uncle Sam would have to take offthe gloves.

 “The Americans want to show humanitarian warfare that iscareful about human life,” he wrote. “But they have no intention of losing thewar either. To win it, from now on, they are going to need to destroy en massethe members of the Republican Guard and anyone near them.”

As Israelis know all too well, there are no benign wars.  

Bringing Tolerance to the World


French multimedia mogul Jean-Marie Messier will spearhead a five-year project to build a European Museum of Mutual Respect in Paris, modeled largely on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

The chairman and CEO of Vivendi Universal announced plans for the museum while accepting the Wiesenthal Center’s 2002 Humanitarian Award at its national tribute dinner May 2 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

At the same event, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, presented plans for a New York Tolerance Center.

The youthful-looking, 45-year-old Messier focused on his vision for the Paris museum and why it is needed at this particular time and location.

"Never before in our recent history, has there been such a need for a place such as this, a place of reflection, a place to remind us of the importance of mutual respect as we face an uprising of the extreme right in Europe, of racism and xenophobia everywhere," he said.

To get the project underway, Messier said he had already established contacts with Paris municipal authorities; Jose Maria Azner, current president of the European Union; Edgar M. Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Jewish organizations in Europe.

Acknowledging that he was not qualified to speak about Judaism, Messier said that nevertheless, he knew that "to be a Jew is to understand, deep in your bones and right through your heart, that intolerance is wrong. Absolutely wrong."

Preceding Messier’s address, Hier screened schematics for the Wiesenthal Center’s New York tolerance center, currently under construction in the old Daily News Building at 42nd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

The New York center, which is receiving some funding from the state legislature, the governor and the federal government, will serve a dual function. During the day, law enforcement officers and educators will participate in the "Tools for Tolerance program," which aims to sensitize "frontline professionals" to the problems of dealing with diverse ethnic and religious groups in a large city. In the evening, the facility will be used as a leadership training center for young people active in the Jewish community. A dedication ceremony is planned for next January, and Hier expects the facility to be in operation by the end of next year.

At the same time, plans are going ahead for a three-acre Wiesenthal Center-sponsored Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, with Frank Gehry as the architect. The center will bear the name Winnick Institute, in recognition of a $40 million pledge by Los Angeles business executive Gary Winnick toward the $150 million cost of the project (plus a $50 million endowment fund). Hier said Messier has shown an interest in supporting the Jerusalem center.

Among the museum’s major goals are "to promote civility and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths and creeds."

Hier expects construction to start in about 12-15 months, after which it will take another two-and-a-half years to complete the project.