L.A. Jews connect in Israel

JERUSALEM — Of the 400 Jewish community members who traveled to Israel on a week-long trip in late October to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, many had already visited the country dozens of times, although some had never set foot on Israeli soil.

A diverse mix of participants from the L.A. region, whose ages spanned several decades, toured the country in 14 separate groups with different, albeit sometimes overlapping, itineraries. While everyone on the mission became acquainted with the many worthy Israeli projects supported by the L.A. Federation, some groups focused on Jewish identity; others were more directed toward philanthropy or social action.

The groups linked up for special events, including the dedication of a new community center at Ayalim Village, a project designed to build and strengthen Israeli communities in the north and south regions of the country. The evening included a barbecue under the stars at the student-run village in the Negev.  

“There are 400 people here of all ages. We have a Birthright bus, a bus of young Russians, major philanthropists,” Federation president and CEO Jay Sanderson enthused as he gazed at the crowd at the mission’s closing event, which featured remarks by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

What united the groups, Sanderson said, was the desire to connect with Israelis and to learn from them, as well as from one another.

For the older, established community members, the mission “also showed our commitment to engage young people,” both in Israel and the United States, Sanderson said.

The social action track was especially popular among younger participants.

“We tried to go to places most tourists don’t go, places that show how Israelis use innovation to tackle difficult problems,” said Dan Gold, who led the group. This included spending a day visiting south Tel Aviv social-service agencies that assist poor Israelis, foreign workers and refugees. They also visited a solar thermal plant, helped remove litter from a valley and picked beets for Leket, Israel’s largest food bank.   

Alicia Harris, 34, a teacher at Crescenta Valley High School, was on the social action trip. Harris said she was inspired by her visit to the Bialik-Rogosin School, where dozens of refugee children are being educated and nurtured.  

“Kids are kids everywhere, but when you hear what these kids have gone through, it’s amazing,” said Harris, a first-time visitor to Israel. “I’d like to come back and volunteer there.

“I was probably the most detached Jewishly of anyone in my group,” she said, “but Shabbat services, the Western Wall, dinner in the desert were poignant moments. Now, I feel a desire to be connected with other Jews once I get back to L.A.”

Harris related how, when she asked her fellow group members where she could find an uplifting prayer service in Los Angeles similar to ones she experienced in Israel, “Someone said, ‘Come with me next week!’ ”

As a result of the trip, she said, “I feel more of a desire to be connected.”

Although Cindy Feit, 28, had visited the Jewish state several times in the past, and even lived in Israel for 10 months, she said there was “something special” about exploring the country with fellow Angelenos.

“Before, I was always with groups of people from all over the place. This time, the benefit is that we can maintain the connections we’ve made on the trip back home.”

Feit said her group is already planning an L.A. reunion Chanukah party.

Cindy Wu-Freedman decided to come on the mission not only to see Israel for the first time, but to strengthen her husband’s connection to Judaism.

“I want to have a sense of God in my own home,” Wu-Freedman, a Jew by Choice, said, noting that her Jewish husband, Jason, had almost no tangible connection to the Jewish community until she began to study the religion.   

“It’s been hard to convince my husband to go to synagogue, and it’s hard to be Jewish on your own,” she said.   

“I’ve been pretty much a non-practicing Jew. I took being Jewish for granted,” Jason Freedman admitted. “But Cindy’s conversion sparked a renaissance in my life.”

Coming to Israel for the first time “has completed the puzzle somehow,” he said. “I’d definitely like to be more active in the Jewish community in L.A. Going to shul, seeking out opportunities to meet more Jews and to be proactively pro-Israel.”

Several mission participants already engaged in full-time Jewish community work back home said they felt recharged by the enthusiasm of those on their first-ever trip to Israel.  

“Our group had a very high percentage of first-timers,” noted Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform congregation. “It’s been personally gratifying to see old sites through new eyes.”

Jews by Choice bolster ties with first Israel mission

Misty Zollars knew she wanted to be Jewish ever since she was 13, when her best friend invited her to her first Passover seder.

“I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew,” said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. “The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn’t really a trip out there for people like me.”

So Zollars helped create one.

Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called “Jews by Choice.” The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.

“This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish,” said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. “There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They’re too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they’re young and they’ve never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them.”

Many of the trip’s participants — who span all ages and are both single and married — are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.

The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.

“There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community — for people who have embraced Judaism,” Weinberg said. “Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support.”

Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience — going to Israel.

“I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this,” she said.

Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.

“I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I’d love to help,” said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. “Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing.”

Visiting Israel is “the big hook” that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.

Just ask Sperling.

“Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel — just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted,” said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. “For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”

Sperling, 44, took Weinberg’s Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple’s devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children — Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 — in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.

As an Israel “veteran,” Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. “Because I’ve already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they’re there,” she said. “This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish.”

Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism — both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.

“People often don’t think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel,” Weinberg said. “Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren’t brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip — $3,000, including the flight — was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.

Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.

“It’s almost like a graduation feeling,” she said. “It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me.”

To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail MistyZollars@yahoo.com or Sperling@pacbell.net, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.

Falash Mura Plight Stirs Support in U.S.

Perhaps no single party outside the Israeli government is as vital to Ethiopian aliyah as the American Jews committed to help paying for it.

So this month, when the United Jewish Communities (UJC) brought a group of 100 people from America’s wealthiest Jewish communities, including Los Angeles, to the straw-and-mud huts of one of the poorest countries on earth, it was a signal to the Israeli government that American Jewry is serious about its own role in bringing Ethiopians to Israel.

Now the question is what the members of the mission — including approximately 70 federation leaders, their staffers and family — are going to do with their newfound, hands-on familiarity with the issue of Ethiopian aliyah.

“Operating here in Ethiopia is extremely complex,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Fishel said his role is to help raise money. “Doing the aliyah is a whole other issue that I’ll leave to the experts.”

The picture presented to the group was both complicated and even morally ambiguous. For one thing, there’s a chance that Israel will back down from its prior commitment to the immigration of the Falash Mura, who are Ethiopians with ties to Judaism through their relatives or ancestry. Even with aid from U.S. Jews, Israel, in the long run, will likely have to foot most of the cost.

“There’s a 30 percent chance that [Israeli leaders are] going to revoke this decision,” said Joe Tauber, national chair of the fundraising campaign during a dinner at Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel on the group’s last night in Ethiopia. “We’ll know within six months.”

In case they do renege, Tauber added, “I’d go back and talk to donors.”

Tauber’s cautionary note, along with the knotty problems with the aliyah that many observed in Ethiopia, prompted some federation fundraisers to say they would focus on UJC’s absorption programs in Israel when pitching Operation Promise to donors, rather than the idea of bringing more Ethiopians — as many as 20,000 more — to the Jewish state.

Another federation fundraiser from the East Coast said she would raise funds only for the absorption part of Operation Promise, because of personal misgivings about Israel’s criteria for immigrants from Ethiopia and management of the aliyah verification process.

But Israel’s commitment wasn’t the only issue. Some on the delegation could understand why critics question whether the Falash Mura should be considered Jews at all. Some Ethiopians are merely responding to an implied message of: “Come to Israel and convert to Judaism, and we’ll make things happen for you. Anybody in Africa would choose that,” said a federation official, who asked not to be named.

“I’m not sure I agree with, ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,'” the official said. “I just have questions about the Falash Mura.”

Others said it was UJC’s historic responsibility to ensure that the aliyah takes place — and that it is successful.

“They want to be Jews,” said Meryl Ainsman, a federation official from Pittsburgh. “It’s a moment in history where we can continue to make mistakes or do the things that can really make a difference.”

So far, UJC has raised more than $45 million in pledges for Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign that includes $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption and $60 million for care of the elderly in the former Soviet Union. Participants pledged an additional $873,000 on the mission’s last day.

Without question, delegation members were taken aback by what they witnessed.

“I’ve never in my life experienced seeing the kind of poverty we saw,” said Julie Lipsett-Singer, an official from the Federation of Central New Jersey. “It was very startling and really altering to my psyche.”

Like many missiongoers, Lipsett-Singer said she was heartened when the UJC group returned to Israel and encountered so many successful Ethiopians and vital absorption programs.

“Many Ethiopians are giving back to the community,” she said. “I’m so much more hopeful and positive about the future.” Many federation executives said the operation to bring the Falash Mura to Israel was justified simply on humanitarian grounds.

“Out of this 20,000, let’s say [only] 10,000 will decide in the end not to be Jewish — so what?” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “If part of them convert to Christianity, Israel is filled with guest workers. Israel is a heterogeneous society.”

The key to the operation’s success, Shrage suggested, is not only bringing the Ethiopians quickly from Africa, but making sure that they are given the right kind of assistance to become productive Israeli citizens.

“It would be such a tragedy if this group of people lost faith in the Jewish identity and the Jewish state,” Shrage said. “We can produce out of this group many great Israelis, many great Jews. This does not have to end up a permanent underclass.”


Lessons From Israel

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Economic Redevelopment

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

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

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

Terrorism Preparedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right Place, Right Time

It was Sunday afternoon, July 6, 2003, and I was approaching the end of a successful three-week mission to Israel dedicated to responding to a new wave of missionary activity. In addition to lectures, news interviews and meetings with government officials, my colleagues and I distributed thousands of copies of a new Hebrew version of Jews for Judaism’s counter-missionary handbook “The Jewish Response To Missionaries.” That day I was traveling by car, with my wife, Dvora, and our son, from the northern town of Tsfat to Tel Aviv.

Around 4 p.m. we decided to take a rest stop. Just before the Zikhron Ya’akov interchange, we exited Highway 70 and pulled up to a small restaurant located about 50 feet from the highway. As we exited our vehicle we heard the sound of screeching tires and turned toward the highway to witness a horrific accident. A white taxi traveling at high speed ran straight into a pedestrian who was walking along the side of the highway. I saw and heard the impact, and watched as the pedestrian was thrown into the air and did a complete somersault over the car, landing on the pavement headfirst.

I’ve been police chaplain for more than 10 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Airport Police and the LAPD and have responded to numerous crisis situations. I’m also trained in first aid, CPR, crisis counseling and advanced critical incident stress management. Within seconds, my years of training kicked in and I helped take control of the situation.

People around me were staring in shock and disbelief. I yelled to them to call for help. My command shook them out their stupor and some immediately ran inside the restaurant and called for emergency services.

I turned my attention back to the highway and ran the 50 feet, jumped the guardrail and kneeled next to the victim. The 14-year-old girl was lying motionless on her side with blood pouring from the back of her head and mouth. I was joined by Danny Eitan, a retired paratrooper and officer of the Israeli army, who had been driving in the opposite direction when he witnessed the accident. Together, we checked for breathing and a pulse. Once we realized both breathing and circulation were absent, we started CPR. Danny opened the airway and handled the breathing and I started chest compressions.

Each time I finished the chest compressions I shouted “od paam” (“again”) to Danny, indicating that he should give her two breaths. This continued for about four repetitions until we revived her.

I did a physical assessment for additional body damage and did not notice any other major external bleeding. A doctor visiting the country arrived on scene. I then turned my attention to the victim’s three friends who were standing by the side of the highway, shaking uncontrollably and crying. I removed them from the accident scene and took them inside the restaurant, had them sit down, supplied them with cold water and offered words of hope. After finding out the victim’s first name, “Hadas,” I offered a brief prayer and left her friends under the supervision of my wife — a licensed therapist.

Since it was extremely warm outside, we wanted to shield the victim from the sun. I requested that some form of material be brought to the side of the victim and a makeshift canopy was erected out of a large cardboard box.

Returning to the victim’s side, I held her head in my hands to prevent further trauma. She kept trying to pull my hand away, but with the help of several individuals who held her arms I stabilized her head and neck. Using her first name we spoke reassuring words of encouragement until the ambulance arrived.

Hadas was taken to a hospital in Hadera where they treated her internal injuries. She was then transferred to a Tel Aviv trauma center for her head injuries. After four days of treatment, she was listed as “out of danger” and is expected to make a full recovery.

Thanks to my training I was able to react professionally, but it was more than training that saved her life.

After the ambulance took Hadas to the hospital, Danny turned to me and said, “I wasn’t supposed to be in this spot at this time.”

I told him that in a million years I wouldn’t have expected to be here either — the “shortcut” given to me that morning took me on nine different highways until I reached the accident site.

I shared with Danny – who is not religious – the words of the Baal Shem Tov,
concerning divine providence and how “the footsteps of men are established
by God.” As we embraced in the middle of the road, we cried knowing that God
had directed us to this spot to save a young life.

I helped Danny put on tefillin in the merit of Hadas’ complete and speedy recovery and we pledged a bond of brotherly friendship for the rest of our lives.

Divine providence put us in the right place at the right time. I thought I
was going to Israel to save Jewish souls, but little did I know that I was
sent to help save Hadas’ life.

Rabbi Ben-Tzion Kravitz is the founder of Jews for Judaism International. He can be reached at la@jewsforjudaism.org.

On The Road

Here’s what you miss when you go on an organized mission to Israel: You miss the closed-top market in Rosh Ayin, where sellers out-shout
each other over megaphones, "Underwear, girls’ underwear, three for 10 shekels."

If you participate in an "emergency weeklong mission" — where you eat in your hotel and other tourist spots — you might miss the fresh souk limonana (a thick, icy, Slurpee lemonade with grated spearmint) and the toasted cheese and tomato sandwich cobbled together on fake kosher-for-Passover "bread" made from matzah meal, and the guy who sells them to you while making fun of your Hebrew — which has somehow deteriorated to your first-grade teacher’s bad American accent.

"Are you a new immigrant?" he asks, and you’re amazed at his chuzpah-like optimism, his complete faith that even at times like these he believes — perhaps correctly? — someone would still move to Israel in its perpetual state of war. You want to tell him you’re a tourist, because you hope it would make him feel almost as good to know that at least people are still visiting Israel, but it’s more complicated than that.

"I used to live here, but now I live in Los Angeles."

"You lived here? What happened to your Hebrew?"

"It will come back soon," you tell him, and hope that like your sleeping pattern, somehow, your language will adjust.

If you went on a "solidarity" mission to visit terror victims/Hebron/Ramallah — depending on which political group you’d like to bolster — you might miss the sandwich guy’s friend, who takes you by the elbow and steers you to the bitan ha’lo ye’uman (the unbelievable stand) of cloths from India. He has gauzy, colorful curtains, tablecloths, napkins and runners embroidered in gold and silver, which sell for $100 at Pottery Barn in the United States, but are on sale today for 20 shekels ($5). You quickly buy the last red ones before the Israeli woman does, and convince the busy merchant (who’s eyeing the two teenage girls on Pesach vacation) to sell you the blue-and-gold pillowcase without the bulky pillow.

"But it’s my last one," he says.

"Exactly, then why do you need a floor sample?" you think is what you said in Hebrew.

You hand him the 30 shekels even though you’re positive he’s ripping you off; despite what Eric Idle says to Graham Chapman in "The Life of Brian," Middle Easterners don’t like to bargain all that much. But you have to leave the incredible booth before your house will look like Calcutta, and because you have to catch the train to Tel Aviv since you promised people at home you wouldn’t take buses.

If you were on a tight security mission to Israel to meet with mayors and ministers and hear the speeches of the particular group that sponsored you, you might miss the experience of trying to tremp (hitchhike) from the gas station where your friend drops you at instead of leaving you at the deserted train station. You might not know that rush of excitement at the possibility of getting a free ride with a cool couple or family and learning the secret of what Israelis talk about these days. But you wouldn’t miss much because the only people stopping are skeezy Israeli men who ask as their car slows, "Where do you want to go?" because they’d probably go out of their way to take the American girl in the short dress even if it wasn’t en route. No thanks, you tell the third guy and flag a cab.

If you spent your week in Israel visiting tourist sites in a van, you would definitely miss the Yemenite cab driver in Rosh Ayin who tells you he has 10 children — eight daughters and two sons – and 21 grandchildren, who all came to his big house (four bedrooms!) for Pesach, where he had his yearly custom of slaughtering a sheep for the seder.

"The sheep costs 400 shekels ($85) and it’s worth it," he explains at your exclamation of horror as he discusses the different parts of the sheep. "I give the head to the slaughterer, as a reward," he tells you, adding that for himself he keeps the innards — kidneys, liver, etc.

He came to Israel from Yemen with his parents ("May they rest in peace") when he was 6, and moved to Rosh Ayin, which was mostly Yemenite, until foreigners started moving in some 10 years ago. "At first there were big conflicts," he explains to you, dangerously taking his eyes and hands off the wheel to turn around and gesture the clasped hands sign of confrontation, "because they always think they know better than us, but in the end we learned to live together."

The kippah-wearing driver doesn’t talk about politics with you except to say that some of his kids are religious, some aren’t, but he doesn’t care, "as long as they’re happy." Maybe he would have talked politics, if you hadn’t already arrived in Tel Aviv.

If you went on one of the many missions to Israel, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, though you’d probably miss out on actually experiencing Israel — but I guess it would certainly be better than not going at all.

Community Briefs

L.A. Jews Meet “Adopted” Israeli Family

In February 2001, a Palestinian bus driver ran over a group of soldiers at a bus stop, and caused severe injuries to Monique Evans, 19. She still walks with crutches, but has largely recovered due to the support the family received from Jews outside of Israel.

“The feeling that we are not alone and that there are people who care about us, has helped us immensely,” Monique’s mother, Sharon Evans, wrote on the Web site of Adopt a Family, a charity she started after her daughter’s injury.

Forty people from some 25 different L.A. communities gathered at the Bel Air home of Edna Kahen on Oct. 26 for an update on the Adopt a Family program, Evans’ Israeli-based charity, run through the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund, that enables synagogues around the world to connect with some 200 families of victims. Each community “adopts” a family — they raise funds that go directly to help that family with medical and other expenses, and they establish a relationship with the family by sending them cards on special occasions, calling them on a regular basis and being there to help them through hard times.

At the Oct. 26 event, which was organized by Rick Fishbein from the Steven S. Wise Temple, representatives from the different communities from Pico-Robertson to Agoura Hills to South Bay to the Valley, shared ideas for fundraising and discussed the ways that adopting families goes beyond fundraising. Evans encouraged people to visit the victims in Israel.

Fishbein, the L.A. contact person for Adopt A Family, who was instrumental in his community adopting two families of terror victims, said that he would love it if more communities were involved in adopting families.

“I think there is a certain segment of the population who can really respond to this, and who can use it as a learning experience to learn about Israel,” he said. “But hopefully this will end. I don’t want this to become some big organization, I want to know that in two to three years this is over with and we can move on to other stuff. But I want to be able to explain to my son that in this period, this is what we did.”

For more information on adopting a family, visit www.walk4israel.org . — Gaby Wenig, Contributing Writer

Israeli Teens Visit L.A.

Three Israeli teens are currently visiting Los Angeles for a two-week period to speak at local high schools and synagogues about life in Israel. The teens, who will be staying with local host families, are part of the Israeli Conservative movement’s NOAM (an acronym for No’ar Masorti) Shlichonim program, which is funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Agency.

“I want to show the people I meet here that Israel is not a battlefield, said Nadav Mark, a 16-year-old from Jerusalem. “It’s a place where normal people live and have normal lives.”

Neta Eini and Sigal Ragol, agree that it is important for Jewish American teens to feel a strong bond with Israel.

“That connection is so important,” said Ragol, 17. “And if the American kids can’t visit Israel, we should keep coming to them so that they’ll have the connection.”

The Israeli teens will learn something from the Americans as well.

“In Los Angeles the Shlichonim are exposed to the fact that Conservative Judaism is so big and so legitimate here versus what they see in Israel,” said Sophie Fellman, the USY Israel shlicha and emissary of the Jewish Agency Pacific West Region.

For nearly five years, NOAM, United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) sister movement in Israel, has sent teens to visit their USY counterparts in Los Angeles and share their culture and life experiences.

The Shlichonim will be in Los Angeles through Nov. 17 and will visit Valley Beth Shalom, Kehillat Ma’arav and Ner Tamid, among other shuls and schools. For a complete schedule and more information, please call Sophie Fellman at (818) 943-3496. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer

Group Organizes Persian Mission toIsrael

The Persian Jewish community is currently organizing a Dec. 22-Jan 2 yearend mission to Israel.

Together We Go will offer a group for students, one for young professionals and a third for families or seniors, will include visits with government officials and victims of terror, and is jointly sponsored by the Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations, Hadassah, the Iranian-American Jewish Federation, Khaneh Javanan Yahood, Ohel Rahel, Payvand, Persian Jews United, SIAMAK, S.E.C., Nessah 2000 Youth Group and Nessah Synagogue.

The mission is open to everyone, both Persians and non-Persians, said the programs creator, Dr. Nathan Newman, 33.

“When you talk to people in Israel, they feel that we only give money and they need more than that,” Newman said. “The purpose of this trip is not just to give to Israel, but to be in Israel.”

Together We Go will hold an informational meeting on itsmission to Israel on Nov. 10, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. RexfordDr., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 588-2626 or send e-mail to:togetherwegotrip@yahoo.com . — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Who Are the Journalists?

We love to hate them, those journalists who wield so much power and never quite get the facts right.

For two years now, we have opened up our morning papers, our Web sites and our hourly news broadcasts with a pit in our collective stomachs. It isn’t bad enough that the news from Israel is so frightening, terrifying and brutal, but the events are served up to us by journalists who can’t seem to distinguish between the ruthless murder of innocent babies at a pizza shop and the deliberate and cautious method in which our brave soldiers execute these murderers.

We are repelled by the moral blindness that screams from every page. Was there something we were missing?

Both of us had developed a much more positive view of journalists here in Los Angeles as we got to know them as human beings and friends. We went to Israel with a unique mission: not to confront but to engage, not to challenge but to question. Through the good offices of friends in Israel, we were able to meet with nearly a dozen journalists in a dizzying half-week; we got to know them and they us.

We spoke with the bureau chiefs of almost all the key American dailies, and then some. We learned much. We enjoyed the company of some very likable people, for the most part, struggling to do a good job on the toughest beat in the world. We detected no animus oward Israel, Israelis or Jews.

No two were the same in temperament or in previous experience. Some had covered wars elsewhere; others had last covered PTA meetings.

Some arrived in Jerusalem with very little knowledge of the historical background to the conflict (what was needed, they said, was accurate reportage of the events of the day). One was a Fullbright lecturer with shelves of background material neatly separated according to topic.

They also had quite a bit in common. They all took considerable risks to cover hot spots. Everyone had a flak jacket; everyone had thrust himself or herself in the midst of combat.

Despite each having important stories to tell and personal insights to relate, they exhibited far less ego then we anticipated. None of them had plans to write a book; they were almost uniformly sheepish about the suggestion. They saw themselves as specialists in their single interest of daily reportage, and that suited them just fine.

They had all been to Jenin, and each one insisted that he/she quickly knew there was no massacre and had gotten the word out quickly. Each one also insisted that it was shortsighted of Israel to change the press accommodations without warning, leaving them stranded outside the arena of action.

The authorities had never clamped down too hard on them when they exposed themselves to the dangers of bullets whizzing around their heads. Why did they choose Jenin to become solicitous of their safety in the face of hidden bombs, refusing to allow them official entry (some found ways around that) until after women and children had reentered the town? While they personally believed that Israel had nothing to hide, the country had handed the Palestinians significant credibility for their claims.

The veteran writers all appreciated that in other wars they had covered, they were simply kept away from the combat zones — and that was the end of it. No country matched the freedom of access that Israel provided, but that did not lead to enthusiastic embrace of the Israeli position, when in their view political hacks frustrated their getting their work done.

One writer pithily offered this summary: “When most of us get here, we have leanings toward the Israeli side. After we see the plight of the Palestinians, our sympathies tilt in the other direction. When we really get to know the principals, we are equally turned off to both.”

Why do they get in trouble with American Jewish critics? One factor became prominent: the use of Palestinian “facilitators” to gather news and sometimes to do much more.

Everyone has them. Israelis just cannot operate in the territories, while the opposite is not true. The journalists say they take their bias into account, but the process is imperfect. And the Palestinians speak with one voice: they want to put their people in the best light.

While the journalists use Israeli facilitators as well, they do not all hew to the same line. Israel is a democracy, and the Israeli counterparts to the Palestinians (none of the latter, by the way, agreed to meet with us) are not all great boosters of the state.

Here we were able to level the playing field a bit. We came equipped with ideas for stories, and fresh contacts who would give voice to points of view they had not yet heard. Surprisingly, we found out that we were the first who had tried this personal approach to helping them do their job.

We proposed human interest ideas, and every one of our new friends sighed, expressing the wish that the violence would subside long enough to allow them the luxury of pursuing those avenues.

There were some difficult moments. We found it hard to listen to stories of the counterproductive behavior of our own people. We hoped — and continue to hope — that people outside our community should be able to differentiate between a small number of hotheads in one society and an entire culture peddling hatred and suicide bombing in the other.

But what could you really tell two female reporters who, covering a funeral in a settlement, returned to their car late on a Friday afternoon to find all four tires slashed? It was hard to disagree when they said that this was more than harassment; that they felt threatened and endangered.

Most difficult to listen to, however, was their almost uniform reaction to our questions about their pursuit of the human side to terrorism, when it seemed to make unvarnished evil more understandable, and therefore not as evil. They all rejected the notion that they were somehow creating a sense of parity between victim and victimizer.

Suicide bombing is so horrific, they claimed, that telling the story of its perpetrators could not possibly diminish normal people’s revulsion for it. It should, they expected, do just the opposite.

But what if it didn’t really work that way? What if they learned, for example, that a story they wrote about a teenage bomber so fascinated a kid in Des Moines that he blew up himself and a school bus of his peers? Would they have any regrets?

None, they insisted. Their job was to report the news, regardless of how the readership processed it. They could not be responsible for that.

With all the differences in background and personality, they all offered the same reasoning. The response was so uniform that it had to be part of their training. They had arrogated to themselves a privilege few of us have: hermetically sealing themselves off from the consequences of their words.

It is a position that we simply could not accept. As rabbis, as educators — as traditional Jews — our interest is almost exclusively what the listener will do with the material, how he or she will internalize it, use it, expand upon it. The advice of our sages in Avot rang in our ears: “Be careful about your words!”

We had arrived at the crux of the matter and left somewhat relieved, but doubly frustrated. We were thankful that it was good, decent people, and not a pack of rabid anti-Semites invoking this moral insulation. But we left without a solution in sight to correcting the daily moral imbalance that these new friends of ours create in the name of balanced reportage. And it was all the more difficult to hear it defended as a privilege of the fourth estate.

We now understood why we could never become journalists ourselves.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the chairman of Bible studies at Yeshiva of Los Angeles High School. Together, they run Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and host “Rabbis With Attitude” on KCSN-FM.

Hearts in the Right Place

Call it a mission with a mission.”It was the most amazing trip,” Dr. Charles Pollick told The Journal. “I’ve been to Israel many times, but they really rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Unlike previous visits, this sojourn was more business than pleasure. Pollick, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Hospital, was among three local medical professionals — 21 overall from America and Canada — who volunteered for a weeklong emergency medical care program, Aug. 4-11, organized by the Jewish Agency and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The Beverlywood family man did not hesitate to sign up for the program.

“If Israel is sick, we need to help,” Pollick, 52, says. The doctors participated in an intensive medical orientation, which included a tour of Israeli hospitals, the IDF Medical Corps School of Military Medicine and the medical branches of the Central and Homefront commands. The doctors also met with Health Minister Nissim Dahan and Col. Hezi Levi, deputy surgeon general of the IDF.

The IDF’s goal, Pollick notes, is to train the doctors so that “should there be a war, we will go back to work in civilian hospitals because their doctors will have to work [on the frontline].”

Pollick is not exaggerating when he says that Israeli doctors work on the frontlines. Of the 13 soldiers ambushed in Jenin earlier this year, eight were medics, he says.

He adds that Israel is looking for more volunteers, especially surgeons and anesthesiologists.

“The most poignant part of the trip,” Pollick says, “was when we met with an 18-year-old victim of terror [of the May 28 Itamar study hall ambush]. He survived, but he’s now a paraplegic.”

Ultimately, volunteers such as Pollick and Pasadena pediatrician Henie Fialkoff came away impressed.

“Their readiness for biological and chemical warfare is incredible,” he says. “They’re very prepared in Israel. Far more advanced than in America.”

“It impressed on me that Americans are very naive,” Fialkoff adds. “The entire world has really changed. We’re in the 1930s, on the brink of major catastrophe. Israel is prepared for it. America is not.”

Area doctors who would like to volunteer their skills for emergency situations in Israel should contact Dr. Eric Karsenty in Israel at eric.karsenty@moh.health.gov.il .

Lesson Plans

The big wheels of the American PR industry are finally spinning on behalf of Israel.

Spearheaded by Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a bipartisan group of leading pollsters and consultants has launched a two-part mission to change American perceptions of Israel. Mizrahi, along with Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategists Frank Luntz and Neil Newhouse, first culled polling data from a wide variety of Americans. They then developed the Israel PR Project to influence opinion elites, politicians, college students and the larger American public. They’ve run their strategy by Jewish leaders in America and Israel, and plan to launch a series of television ads and training sessions for Jewish U.S. and Israeli spokespeople next month.

As Mike Levy reports on page 14, an important facet of the PR campaign will take place in colleges and universities.

In the hothouse of academia, issues play out with an intensity all their own. Nowhere in the United States have pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters clashed as regularly and as virulently as they have at places like UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University — and UCLA.

The PR people, along with officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hillel and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), want to arm students, especially Jewish students, with information and arguments to counter a well-organized, well-funded campus PR push against Israel. As our correspondent Leslie Susser points out on page 28: "…the key problem in Israeli hasbara [public relations], has been its narrative of peacemakers fighting terrorists against the Palestinian narrative of freedom fighters opposing occupiers." Transport this hasbara problem to campuses where students are predisposed to side with underdogs and against authority, and it’s no wonder many Israel supporters report feeling besieged.

Critics of the PR idea say the problem itself is overstated. An AJC poll showed that collegians, much like other Americans, support Israel over the Palestinians by a 4-1 margin. Anti-Israel flare-ups are the exception, not the rule.

That poll, itself controversial, may be accurate, but doesn’t obviate the need for a campaign. Opinion is fluid, if not fickle, and only a concerted pro-Israel effort will ensure Israel gets a fair hearing on campuses.

But will the campus PR campaign work? Not if it’s only a PR campaign. With all due respect to the consultants and pollsters who have thrown their experience and expertise into helping Israel, what students go to college for is education, not public relations. (OK, they go for a few other things as well, but that’s a different column.)

Students come to ask questions, and, when confronted by a pressing social issue, to seek answers. The Palestinian propagandists have marching orders to turn every argument about terror into an attack on "the occupation." Giving Jewish students marching orders to fend off every charge of occupation with "Israel’s desire for peace" will ring hollow, not just with many non-Jewish students, but with many of the best and the brightest Jewish collegians as well.

That’s because behind the PR problem is Israel’s political problem, and in the interest of unity, and perhaps simplicity, it’s one the PR mavens refuse to confront directly. So the students will be urged to stand behind Israel, but not for a specific political solution. They will be told to go out and convince their fellow students that Israel wants peace. To which I’m sure legions of students will rightly ask, "Yeah, and so?"

We should arm students with some phrases and facts that will help them survive the initial onslaught of Palestinian propaganda. But more importantly, we should be urging them to begin the complex intellectual and emotional task of understanding the conflicting narratives of the region, and of promoting solutions, not shibboleths.

The PR mavens are used to fighting battles in which one candidate loses and the other one wins, where the playing field is black and white and the whole deal is wrapped by Election Day. But the Middle East has grays, and at the end of the day, the Israelis and the Palestinians will have to both win and lose. That may be tough for some Jews and Arabs to understand, but I have a feeling most college kids already get it.

Married to Israel

Call it a shopping trip. Lou and Trudy Kestenbaum came to Israel last month on a Jewish National Fund (JNF) mission to spend money, as well as to follow up on how the money they’ve already spent in the Jewish state is doing.

Lou Kestenbaum made his fortune in construction and then plastics, and now that he’s retired, he spends a lot of his time giving it away. "Now I work for mitzvot," he says.

The Kestenbaums give sizable gifts through an organization called Shelters for Israel, a Los Angeles-based group founded in 1948 by Hungarian Holocaust survivors like themselves. The Shelters organization, with nearly 500 members, may be the most streamlined charitable organization on the planet: It has no office, no overhead and gets all its work done on a volunteer basis while, in the last 15 years alone, earmarking some $10 million for Israel projects.

"We’re one of the biggest secrets in L.A.," says Lou Kestenbaum, naming a few of Shelters for Israel’s undertakings: a Jordan Valley day-care center for handicapped elderly that the Kestenbaums helped to dedicate on this trip; an elder- care center in Haifa, due to be completed in three months; a community center in the Arava on which construction has just begun, plus kindergartens, libraries, day-care centers — 35 projects in all.

"We start with seeing what Israel’s needs are," Lou Kestenbaum explains. "We’re married to Israel."

"And also to each other," his wife adds.

Trudy Kestenbaum is especially active in the JNF Sapphire Women’s group, through which the Kestenbaums have also made major gifts, including a recent donation to underwrite the infrastructure for a new town, called Zukkim, in the Arava. They have also made sizable private gifts, donating an ambulance to Magen David Adom and a playground near the Haifa zoo.

Their current trip partly centered on the dedication of a new Jewish National Fund reservoir at Kibbutz Affikim, south of Lake Kinneret, for which the Kestenbaums donated $300,000. The water shortage in Israel has reached critical proportions, Lou points out, and, he adds, it’s a problem that is not going to solve itself. "If you give a man a fish, you feed him once," he quotes. "But if you teach him to fish, you feed him forever. A reservoir is not just a hole in the ground with a lot of water in it," he says. "It changes people’s lives."

He points out what the nearly 1 million cubic meter reservoir at Affikim will contribute: a commercial fish farm (carp, trout and whitefish) that will produce income for the kibbutz and food for Israelis, water for agriculture and a general "greening" that will improve the quality of life for all the area’s inhabitants. Reservoirs can also catch and hold rainwater or usable waste water for recycling, making a double impact by protecting the environment while adding to the water supply.

Israel now has about 100 reservoirs around the country, with JNF aiming at creating 100 more in the next five years. With Israel’s need for water obvious and even desperate — the country, whose annual water deficit equals 25 percent of its total water use, is currently suffering the worst drought in its recorded history, according to JNF — the couple, "went shopping for another reservoir to raise funds for," Lou Kestenbaum says.

As part of the JNF mission, which included a handful of other Angelenos, the Kestenbaums toured sites in Israel and heard talks by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel. Lou Kestenbaum, whose comprehensive collection of Israeli stamps is both widely known and extremely valuable, also took time to visit the Israel Philatelic Museum in Tel Aviv, of which he is a founder.

Nothing if not energetic, he is eager to see another brainchild of his come to birth in Los Angeles. Starting with this year’s JNF annual banquet, scheduled for Oct. 27, two community figures, not the usual single individual, will be honored each year — an Ashkenazi and a Persian. "It’s a way of bringing the communities together," explains Lou Kestenbaum, whose business connections with Iranian Jews were a steppingstone to conceiving and implementing the idea. He is this year’s Ashkenazi honoree; the Persian is Dr. Jamshed Maddahi.

The Kestenbaums, who have two grown children and two grandchildren, have been married for 57 years. "And I’d buy another 57 with this guy," says Trudy Kestenbaum fondly, jerking her thumb at her husband. Apparently, she thinks that her husband, like the state of Israel, is a good investment.

Mixing It Up

A few weeks ago, Gil Amir contemplated the status of a trip because of violence in his country of destination.

"I was really upset at first," said Amir, 16. "I had scenarios that the trip would be canceled. But I always wanted to go. I want to show that if there’s a terror attack, people should still visit. That I am not afraid."

Amir was not embarking on a mission to Israel. He is among a group of Israeli teens currently visiting Los Angeles, despite the July 4 shooting at LAX’s El Al ticket counter, as part of a cultural exchange program created by The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

Misconceptions like Amir’s are being dispelled, which is what the Junior Counselors-In-Training program is all about — to help American and Israeli teens get a better understanding of each other’s reality.

Since July 9, Amir and 11 other Israeli teens have been assimilated into Camp Alonim on the Simi Valley campus of program co-sponsor The Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI).

The Federation chose BBI because of its pluralistic Jewish environment.

"The idea is to make Israel more prominent in the lives of American Jews," said David Gill, Partnership co-chair, working with Jill Holtzman, The Federation’s director of International Programs. "We think the best way to achieve this, is through person-to-person and organization-to-organization contact," Gill said.

The participating Israelis are students at Ironi Tet, Ironi Daled and Shevach Mofet, the school many of the teenage victims of last summer’s Dolphinarium discotheque bombing had attended.

"It’s not good to have one school like a ghetto," said Avi Omri, an employee of the Tel Aviv municipality’s education department who accompanied the teens as a project coordinator. "It was much better for them to be mixed up with other children."

The 12 teens, roughly a quarter of the 53 campers, comprise about two Israelis per tent. Halfway through the summer camp program, the teens are working well together, despite some initial bumps.

"There’s been some adjustment, especially for the girls," Omri said. "Girls tend to be in cliques. The American kids ignored them at first."

"It took a little time," said North Hollywood resident Meredith Knell, 20, one of the four advisers helping teens prepare for a melave malke (post-Shabbat celebration) at the outdoor ampitheatre on the verdant Simi Valley campus. "Last Shabbat, everything came together," she said.

Teens from both groups said that the program is successfully fostering cross-cultural understanding. A far cry from the program’s first days, when the Israelis were struck by the naiveté of some questions posed to them by their American counterparts.

"They thought we didn’t have the Internet or technological progress in Israel," said Ironi Daled student Stephanie Moran, 15, whose country, of course, is a global high-tech leader.

Some American students also seemed misinformed about daily Israeli existence.

"There are people who think it’s a dangerous place," Moran said. "We don’t stop meeting friends or spend all our time at home."

Igal Belfor, 15, agreed: "It’s very important for us to visit so that American teens will understand that we still live our lives."

The Israelis are also getting a crash course in American culture. Amir was particularly impressed with Venice Beach, where falafel stands and henna tattoos echoes Israeli youth culture.

Spending Shabbats at Alonim, Amir is touched by the expression of Jewish tradition. "People do it here because they want to, not because they have to," he said.

The Angelenos are also gaining from the social experiment. Calabasas teen Annie Lascoe, 15, said that the Israelis have made this — her fifth Alonim summer — special.

"It makes you feel closer to Israel because I’ve never gone to Israel, but I feel a connection to it," Lascoe said. "They’re just like us. They like the same things we do. They’re normal teens."

Gill credits both BBI, for making its campus available for the pilot program, and BBI’s president Dr. Lee Bycel, who worked hard to fundraise for raising half of the $41,000 in costs.

"Our deep commitment is to fostering relationship between American Jews and Israelis," Bycel said. "The relationship with the Partnership is wonderful, because that’s where their commitment is."

Come July 28, when Junior Counselors-In-Training will conclude, some Israelis will journey home, while others, such as Amir, will stay in America.

Despite his initial qualms, Amir says he is glad he came to Los Angeles.

"I feel that I am on a mission," he said. "I have a message to give to kids here, and I didn’t want to let this opportunity slip through my hands,"he said.

"We’re only 12 here, and we can make such a difference. It feels good."

Students Prepare for War of Words organizations.

The long-term forecast predicts a very hot autumn on American college campuses, as Israel advocates challenge a well-organized, well-financed anti-Israel campaign by pro-Palestinian activists.

Not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, the national Hillel organization in late May mounted an "Israel Advocacy Mission" that brought some 400 Jewish college students to Israel for a four-day mission aimed at showing — and building — solidarity with the Jewish state.

Under the slogan, "Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel," the mission included briefings by Israeli officials, such as Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister for foreign affairs; meetings with journalists and educators; a day of service projects to help those affected by terrorism; and workshops on how to educate and advocate for Israel including strategies for building coalitions with other student groups and reaching out to uninvolved Jewish students.

The need is undeniable. "Not a day goes by that I’m not upset by something anti-Semitic on campus," said Adam Tichler, a 20-year-old UCLA junior.

"We’re vocal, but the whole school is against us," said Dikla Uchman, a Southern California native studying at San Francisco State, which was the site of an anti-Jewish near-riot in the spring. She said it is "very hard to be Jewish on campus," citing hostility from both Arab and left-wing groups who called Jewish activists "filthy Jew!" and told them to "get off campus!"

Students from around the country complained of campus newspapers filled with anti-Israel articles and editorials and of professors encouraging students to protest against Israel.

Of 400 participants on the four-day mission, nearly 80, including a good handful from Los Angeles, remained in Israel for an intensive and intense two-week training program aimed at providing them with resources and honing their skills for the coming battle to win the hearts and minds of fellow students. The two-week program featured in-depth background classes at Tel Aviv University, a trip to Gaza, skill-building workshops and practice sessions.

All 400 participants of the four-day mission were required to promise to return to their campuses to support Israel in September. Though the mission was "free," each student paid $250 to participate — with $180 of that sum earmarked for their local Jewish Federation’s Israel Emergency Fund.

The advocacy mission was organized with support from pro-Israel lobbying group America Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities. Footing the $300,000 tab were five noted Jewish philanthropists: World Jewish Congress Chairman Edgar Bronfman, Tulsa philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, Hillel board member Michael Steinhardt, Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Ron Lauder and Leonard Abramson, benefactor Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Philadephia.

Los Angeles participants praised the program for giving them confidence to advocate for Israel on campus, as well as for the sense of solidarity and connection they felt with other students from around the country.

"When I read what’s happening on other campuses, I think ‘uh oh, we’re in trouble,’" said Talia Osteen, a USC film student. "But when I see these other students, I know we’ll get through this, too. I met amazing students and saw my passion for Israel and for supporting Israel reflected in so many others."

Tal Zavodaver, a USC student who grew up in Woodland Hills and Agoura, agreed. "When I’m back on campus, I’ll have authority when I speak out, because I was there. People will listen and hear me, even if they don’t agree."

The student advocates from Los Angeles were all previously active in campus Hillels or in organizing pro-Israel activities. Almost all have at least one parent born in Israel and a fairly high proficiency in Hebrew, a circumstance reflecting in part the demographics of the L.A. Jewish community.

Ruth Yomtoubian, a Los Gatos native attending USC, called the trip "one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’d organized rallies before but now I can educate people. I got into the politics and history this time and I can teach people the facts. I feel empowered."

Whatever Happened to Jewish Unity?

"We are one," "One people" and the like are the perennial slogans of Jewish federation fundraising. The slogans are meant to arouse feelings of nostalgia for bygone days when most Jews still possessed a strong sense of connection to one another.

Occasionally, one still meets Jews with that instinctive bond to all other Jews. In the pages of Hadassah Magazine, for instance, if it’s Jewish, it’s good. From Jews rediscovering Orthodoxy to lesbian couples making a brit milah for "their" son, all is cause for celebration.

On a plane returning to Israel a few years back, I met Jack Stromfeld, a Florida retiree. He travels several times a year to Israel volunteering at a residential educational facility for children from underprivileged backgrounds. Back home, he raises money for the facility. Stromfeld only has to say the words "Jewish children" and his eyes begin to glisten.

I both admire and envy Stromfeld and the good ladies of Hadassah marching under the banner "Jewish is beautiful." Unfortunately, however, they represent a disappearing breed.

All surveys show a rapidly declining sense of ethnic identity among American Jews. And the same processes are at work in Israeli society as well. What little unity still exists in the latter is largely a function of the external security threat, not of any profound identification of most Israelis with their Jewishness.

We are a long way from the Lower East Side, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews of all types — from religious traditionalists to Bundists making annual Yom Kippur balls — were crammed together. Today religious and nonreligious Jews live in separate neighborhoods.

When even the most modern of the Orthodox move into largely Jewish suburbs like Beachwood, Ohio, or Tenafly, N.J., sparks fly. The Israeli Supreme Court has taken judicial notice of the "fact" that religious and nonreligious Jews cannot live in proximity to one another (even in cities where they have done so for 100 years).

Among those things that no longer bind Jews is a common religion. Senators and congressmen have long become used to hearing Jewish spokesmen proclaim in the name of Judaism both that abortion on demand and homosexual rights represent the apex of "Jewish values" and that they are abominations. For the Orthodox, existence begins with God’s binding command and a Jew’s task in life is to enter into a relationship with Him by doing His will. For Reform, however, nothing is given, and "individual autonomy" remains the ultimate value.

Once Jews shared common sacred texts. That, too, is a vanishing phenomenon. Talmud, and even Chumash, are closed texts to most secular Jews, even in Israel.

Nor do common issues any longer bind us. Israel is increasingly irrelevant to American Jews, the vast majority of whom have never even visited. And even among those for whom Israel is important, there exists nothing remotely resembling a consensus about proper Israeli policy.

The struggle to free Jews in the Soviet Union, which used to unify a wide spectrum of Jewry, is over. There is virtually no country in the world today from which Jews are not free to immigrate. Even anti-Semitism, the great standby, has become too peripheral to the lives of most Jews to still bind us together.

The only perspective from which it is still possible to speak about one Jewish people is the theological — the perspective of Sinai. In traditional Jewish thought, all those whose ancestors stood at Sinai, or who join themselves to the community of Israel by accepting the yoke of Torah in the same fashion as those who stood at Sinai, are charged with a common mission by God Himself. It is a mission that cannot be accomplished by individuals, but only by klal Yisrael, for it requires the establishment of a society that proclaims God’s existence to the entire world.

Needless to say, this is a perspective subscribed to today almost exclusively by the Orthodox. Yet even for the Orthodox, maintaining a klal Yisrael consciousness is no easy matter; klal Yisrael too often becomes merely theoretical construct. As the lifestyles of religious and nonreligious Jews, and the values underlying those lifestyles, radically diverge, religious Jews are torn between an urge to reach out and an opposing urge to withdraw from contact to avoid contamination by alien values.

The challenge confronting Orthodox parents today is somehow to teach their children that every Jew is a brother, as well as a partner in a common mission, without losing sight of the mission itself. It is a daunting task. But if it is not done, the last source of Jewish unity will also become the stuff of nostalgia.

Mission Impossible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together to Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviving Communities

I was fortunate to be among a small group of United Jewish Fund (UJF) campaign leaders who visited St. Petersburg, Russia and Vilnius, Lithuania to witness the work that is being done in both communities by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

All who went on this mission returned enlightened with an awareness of what is being accomplished in each community on a day-to-day basis. Most importantly, we came away with a stronger commitment to participate in Jewish life here in Los Angeles and help in the efforts of the UJF campaign.

We got to see how vital UJF funded services are to people in desperate need. In my 26 years of professional work in the Jewish Federation movement, no mission had more of an impact on me than this one to St. Petersburg and Vilnius.

More than 30,000 Jews live in the St. Petersburg area and close to 35 percent are elderly. The greatest challenge faced by them is their ability to maintain some measure of economic security. Approximately 10,000 seniors are in need of hot meals, home care and other support. The high cost of medication remains a major problem.

We visited the Hesed Avraham, a multifunctional outreach program that provides care to the needy based on three principles: Jewish values, community orientation and volunteerism. We met with elderly people in their apartments and saw their difficult living conditions. They expressed appreciation for the food boxes that are delivered on a regular basis and noted that it would be impossible for them to live and sustain themselves without the help of the JDC’s programs.

There is no question that there are additional needs that are going unmet in St. Petersburg. There are insufficient funds available to feed, clothe and provide needed medication for all of the elderly Jews who require our services. Most are living on pensions of less than $20 per week. It is virtually impossible to meet their basic needs on such a meager income. Their only opportunity to live some semblance of a normal life is through the help provided by the JDC.

We also visited with members of the young and emerging Jewish community in St. Petersburg. We witnessed several Ulpan classes that were provided by the Jewish Agency and spoke with parents of children who are participants in the Selah and Chalon programs.

These programs provide assistance to young people who wish to study in Israel during their last two years of high school. The Jewish Agency provides a full annual scholarship of $8,000 per student to those who qualify. There is a significant waiting list of people who wish to participate.

Our trip to Lithuania was nothing short of astounding. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence and the Jewish community came to life. Although these communities are small, they are vibrant and looking toward building a brighter future.

About 5,500 Jews live in Lithuania, the majority in Vilnius and the small communities in Kovno, Siaulai, Klaipeda and Ponevezys. The JDC provides a social service package, similar to that in St. Petersburg, for the elderly of Vilnius.

The enthusiasm of the young people involved in Jewish activities is unshakable. They want to participate in Jewish life, learn more about Jewish culture and raise Jewish families. We visited the Shalom Alaichem School, the Jewish Community Center and several Jewish youth clubs.

We visited the remaining synagogue in Vilnius, and traveled to Kovno, where we met with 40 elderly members of the community, all of whom receive both food and other assistance from JDC.

Despite the tough economic and social situation, a miraculous renaissance of Jewish life is taking place. In less than 10 years, Jewish programs and institutions have developed to address various aspects of Jewish life. These include a Jewish school, welfare services, children’s clubs, cultural activities, student unions and art festivals. This is truly remarkable given the history of this community.

We are doing miraculous lifesaving work around the world. We should all be very proud of how our United Jewish Fund dollars are invested. Those dollars are making a difference for the needy and for those seeking new opportunities for Jewish expression.

Bill Bernstein is associate executive vice president of the Jewish Federation. He was accompanied on his trip by his wife Brooke, Renee Katz, Dodi Gold, Alan Shuman, Stan and Marilyn Ross and Valerie Salkin.

All Jews Count

It is a familiar sight. On each flight to Israel, in the back of the plane, a minyan gathers for services.

It was no different on my flight to Israel last year. Although I was participating in an Israel Bonds rabbinic mission, our delegation from Los Angeles was small, and we didn’t have enough rabbis for a minyan. As we searched the plane for the requisite number of men, everyone we asked, whether observant or not, agreed to help make the minyan.

After our first service, one of the men who joined us commented how wonderful it was that so many Jews were willing to pray together, although it was obvious our observance levels differed. No one rejected the other, he noted, uttering the belief that this must be a sign that the Messiah is imminently approaching.

I told him that although no one could guarantee a messianic moment, we could be certain that, dating back to the Bible, Jews always included each other in the minyan. I reminded him that this was at the heart of the Purim story, as recounted in Megillat Esther. The Megillah records that Haman wanted to destroy all Jews, young and old, infants and women together. In order to achieve his goal, Haman told King Ahasuerus that the opportune time had arrived because, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom” (Esther 3:8).

The Midrash comments that Haman recognized that this was the perfect time to attack the Jews because we weren’t simply “scattered and separate.” Rather, we were divided and contentious. We were fighting with each other, and disunity reigned. Haman knew that when Jews don’t get along with each other, their enemy has the ability to defeat them.

Our rabbis comment that, for this reason, Esther instructed Mordechai, “Go assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan” (4:16). Esther didn’t say to Mordechai, “Go assemble the observant individuals.” Rather, she clearly instructed that “all Jews,” no matter what their observance level might be, must pray together. If we wish to survive, Esther knew, we must be united.

Although my new acquaintance found my observation encouraging, he wondered if it was realistic. I told him that I didn’t know if it was realistic or not, but I knew that it is imperative for Jewish survival.

During our convention in Israel, this very theme arose in an address delivered by Natan Sharansky, the great hero of Soviet Jewish resistance and now Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade. He pleaded for Jewish unity by describing the feelings he had when he sat in prison for his refusenik activities.

“When you feel that all Jews around the world are struggling with you, it gives you a sense of power. You feel strong when all Jews around the world are one. Alone in prison, in the punishment cell, it is dark, without food and drink, but there is a powerful feeling of connection. And if a Jew were to come to you then and ask to whom do you feel connected, the Orthodox or the Reform, Labor or Likud, Ashkenazi or Sephardi … please, that is crazy! We would have never been able to survive with such thoughts. Unity is such a powerful feeling. It gives you the power to be free and say no the KGB.”

That is the story of Purim, a lesson we may never forget.

Elazar Muskin is the rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Education Israel as a Core Requirement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My First Trip to Israel

“I know your relatives all think you’re crazy, but we’re gladyou’re here,” our tour guide, Zvi Lev-Ran, said as 36 tired Angelenospiled onto a bus after a 13-hour flight aboard a chartered El Al747-400 from Los Angeles. We were part of the largest mission eversponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. More thanhalf of the 430 participants were first-timers, including myself.Having been born almost exactly one year after the birth of Israel,in 1948, it seemed fitting that I participate in this mission, whichwas timed to coincide with festivities launching the Jewish state’sgolden anniversary celebration.

But I was filled with anxiety as the departure date approached.And, indeed, some of my friends and relations didn’t ease my fears.

“Stay away from crowds,” my brother Denis told me.

“That might be a little hard to do, since I’m going with 400people,” I said to him.

“I’ll say a prayer for you,” a former neighbor said when Iinformed him of the trip just after one of the bombings in Jerusalemlast summer. An attorney, he offered to help me draw up my will.

But those who were regular visitors to Israel pooh-poohed suchanxiety. “You’re more likely to be a victim of a traffic accident ora random shooting on the 405 than a terrorist attack in Israel,” theysaid.

Three weeks after returning safe and sound to my home and familyin Manhattan Beach, with mostly positive memories of my 14-day visit,I wonder about my fears. After all, I took a solitary stroll alongTel Aviv’s waterfront after midnight, stared over the border intoSyria from the Golan Heights, slept in a kibbutz a few miles from theLebanese border, rode through the now-Palestinian-occupied city ofJericho en route to Jerusalem, and spent two days touring westernJordan. I can truly say I had few moments of unease about safety.

Yet, if I lived there, I might feel differently. Israelis withwhom I spoke talked about bombs that had gone off two minutes fromtheir homes or offices, about children who are serving or would soonserve in the armed forces, about stores and restaurants that hadblown up on this corner or that. “Israelis live with constanttension,” one woman told me. “If you have a son in the army, youcan’t sleep at night.”

Israelis told me that they were grateful to American Jews forcontributing financial and moral support, and prayed that they wouldcontinue to do so. But our hosts said that we shouldn’t judge them soharshly or expect change to come so quickly, particularly with regardto the conversion bill currently pending in the Knesset. The measure,which has caused such concern among non-Orthodox American Jews, haslittle relevancy in Israeli’s daily lives.

While waiting for the tram at the top of Masada, several of us hada discussion on the subject with our guide for the day, AmikamBezalel, a speech writer in the Knesset and for past prime ministers,including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. A witty manwho was born in Palestine during the British Mandate, in 1941, hekept us amused on the bus ride from Jerusalem along the Dead Sea withjokes about the local fish (pickled herring) and the peace process(“We live in a country surrounded by peace lovers: Everyone wants apiece of it.”). He became serious when the discussion turned to theconversion bill and its differing implications for Israelis andAmericans. With so few Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, “thisis not a problem here,” he said. Most Israeli Jews are secular, butwhen they worship, they generally go to Orthodox shuls. Even if theydon’t attend services at all, the problem of assimilation isnonexistent in Israel, Bezalel said. “Everywhere I go, I’m surroundedby Jews.”

Although sympathetic to the feelings of Diaspora Jews whose Reformand Conservative Judaism is not recognized by Israel’s Orthodoxrabbinical establishment, he disagreed with their efforts to changethe status quo — in existence since Israel’s founding. It grants theRight of Return and citizenship to non-Orthodox Jews, but doesn’trecognize non-Orthodox marriages, divorces, conversions and burials.Although he is a secular Jew and doesn’t always agree with theOrthodox establishment, “I know where I live, and I know thereality,” Bezalel said. For him, the issue is more about identitythan conversion.

Some students we spoke with at a top-notch high school in Tel Avivseemed to feel conflicted — protective of Orthodox traditions thatthey mostly didn’t practice, yet worried about the growing power ofthe religious right. Facing military service next year, they mostlywondered whether their country would ever know peace. “I reallybelieve that, in war, we cannot solve our problems,” said adark-haired young man with a magnetic smile who hoped to run forprime minister one day and continue the policies of Yitzhak Rabin.

“I was surprised at how much I learned about politics,” said Dr.Andrea Green, a Kaiser Permanente physician with whom I roomed on thetrip. A member of the Reform Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge,Andrea had given little thought to the conversion bill before goingon the mission, but she came back more aware of what it might meanfor her.

“I have a more definite feeling about Orthodox Jews controlling[Israel] and deciding who is a Jew,” she said. “If they started todefine me as a non-Jew…then I don’t think I’d support Israel in thesame way. It wouldn’t be providing the function that it’s supposed toas a protected homeland for all Jews. I’d feel excluded.”

After listening to both the Israeli and American perspectives, aswell as hearing from Arabs in a small East Jerusalem town andexperiencing the hospitality of Jordanians in Amman and Petra, I leftIsrael feeling hopeful about friendly relations between individualIsraeli and American Jews, even between some Jews and Arabs. But theparty politics of Israel seems even more baffling and worrisome thanit did from my desk in Los Angeles, and the prospects of peacebetween Israel and the Palestinians both overwhelming andfrustrating.

Touring western Jordan (Petra, above) and the Golan Heights,staring over the border into Syria, there were few moments of uneaseabout safety.

Photos by Ruth Stroud

Israel or Bust

The Federation had received only four cancellations — a total of seven people who decided not to go because of the twin blasts — according to Evy Lutin, mission co-chair. More than 350 people are signed up for the 10-day mission, which celebrates the kickoff of Israel’s 50th-anniversary year. About 500 people are expected to make the trip.

“Life goes on, whether you live in the United States or the Middle East, whether you ride the subways in New York or there’s a drive-by shooting in Inglewood,” Lutin said.

She and her husband, Marty, the other co-chair, were in Atlanta for the Summer Olympics when a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park. “We could have gotten killed or hurt,” she said. “But did we say we’ll never go to the Olympics again? Absolutely not!”

At recent recruiting meetings for the Israel mission, the terrorist bombings were hardly mentioned. “People want to know what clothes to wear in November or whether they’ll have time to go shopping,” Lutin said.

Bernie Bienstock, who is leading a small contingent from Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica, said that he and his wife, Jewish Journal columnist Beverly Gray, had anticipated that a violent incident might happen prior to departure, and said that only a war would stop them. “My personal opinion is we’ve got to go. Israel needs our support,” Bienstock said.

Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel said that most people would recognize that random acts of violence are not the norm in Israel. “I’ve been going to Israel for 20 years on a very regular basis, and I have never felt less than safe,” Fishel said. “I think a lot of people have a strong desire to show commitment to Israel as we begin the 50th-anniversary year.”

Meanwhile, plans for the tour have continued apace, said the Federation’s mission director, Freddi Rembaum. She recently met with the Israeli ticketing agent and leaders of the various synagogue and other groups to design specific itineraries for the trip, which will take place Nov. 1-10. Rembaum and her husband, Joel, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, who will lead a bus group from the synagogue, a married son who lives in Israel.

“I was so angry at the stupidity of these [suicide bombers],” she said. “But the peace process is going to go on…. Despite these headlines, the reservations for the mission are coming in, and the number of seats will be limited.”

For more information or reservations, call (213) 852-7872.