L.A. Jewish girl joins the African Jewish matzah dance

My Pesach preparation, like that of so many Americans, usually involves walking to my local supermarket and loading a cart full of Manischewitz products … you
know, the chocolate-covered jellies, the matzah-pizza sauce and, of course, the kosher cheese that rarely melts. The hardest part of the process is simply choosing between the egg and onion or the butter-flavored matzah.

But preparing for Pesach this year was a bit different. Living in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia and teaching Hebrew music, dance and culture to eager students, ages 6 to 20, has been an enormous blessing. I wake up each morning to pray with white-robed, modest Ethiopians who have moved from the surrounding villages to be a part of this unbelievable 14,000-person Jewish community. From morning services, I walk the rocky dirt path to the mud and straw school, which is decorated with vibrant paintings of the Torah, a shofar, Israeli flags and even a diagram of the body in Hebrew. It is alive with exuberant children skipping quickly inside to get a good seat on the wooden benches. They sing “Hava Nagila,” “Esa Enai” and “Hinei Matov” with every ounce of power in their lungs and with a groovy boogie in their brightly colored foam-sandaled feet. Meanwhile, some of their older cousins and parents are busy suiting up in matching beige aprons preparing for the coming holiday.

Almost 400 miles away from the nearest “supermarket” — not to mention one that sells kosher food — the members of Gonder’s Beta Israel Jewish Community have to make all their matzah themselves, resulting in the production of 300,000 matzot in an outdoor, 18-minute-or-less whirlwind, just in time to replace the injera (traditional flat, sour, bubbly pancakes — the staple Ethiopian food) for Pesach.

As a Los Angeles-bred city girl, I would have had no idea where to start if I were asked to hand-prepare fresh matzah. I probably would have plopped some bread dough on my head and hurriedly walked around outside in the sun, trying to mimic my ancestors leaving Egypt, hoping that it would somehow bake into a neat flattened square crisp.

But in Gonder, they have the process down to an art. More than 100 community members in kippot and hair coverings (for the women) work under the supervision of an Israeli Ethiopian named Getinet beneath the precious shade of a large green tree. Turquoise-, yellow- and cantaloupe-shaded birds gather on the branches to witness the operation, also providing a cheery tune on the breeze. The men face each other across long, spotless tables. They count down to the start of the 18-minute cycle with an excited Amharic “ahnd, hoolet, sost!” (And I thought that the ’90s cooking show, “Ready, Set, Cook!” was good.) As soon as the countdown reaches its climax and the time begins to run, they rapidly mix the flour and water, pound it out, roll it, puncture it with “the little hole making wheel” and cut out medium-sized circles.

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May this Pesach bring us all a little “Jewish matzah dance” of our own — or may it at least inspire us to enjoy the natural beauty and joy of Hashem’s creations. More importantly, may the fire of our souls inspire us to perform many mitzvot and celebrate the glory of our heritage that transcends continents, languages and cultures.

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Uri Geller bends self into Israel ‘reality TV’ stardom

Israel is no stranger to reality TV. Knockoffs — or shall we say adaptations — of popular American TV talent shows, like “American Idol” and “The Apprentice,” have become hits. But recently, Israel has developed its own inimitable, highly successful talent contest in which Uri Geller, the famous, controversial, Israeli paranormalist, is seeking an heir.

It’s only natural, Geller said in a telephone interview, that Israel pioneer a contest for mentalists (read “mind readers”).

“I think this field — call it mentalism, parapsychology, real magic, kabbalah, Jewish mysticism — all started here 5,000 years ago, when the Jews left Egypt,” he said. “It’s all riddled in the kabbalah — the mystical letters, the powers, the energy of the universe. People are believers here…. Our race is steeped in mystery attached by a spiritual thread to universe.”

Geller cited Houdini, David Copperfield, David Blaine and even Einstein as examples of Jews who have learned to understand and manipulate natural phenomena.

“The Successor” debuted Nov. 18 to record-breaking ratings. Almost one-third of Israel tuned in to watch Geller judge the nine contestants as they dazzled audiences with their mind-reading, mind-bending powers. The show has attracted international attention and, according to Geller, has sparked interest from producers abroad who are considering adopting its format.

Geller is most famous for bending spoons “with his mind,” a feat that commonly figures into legends, jokes and parodies about him, although the contestants perform more sophisticated stunts on the show. The acts use three local celebrities (always including a pretty actress or model) to perform their sleights of “mind”: drawing images, determining numbers and phrases and even playing songs the celebrities secretly choose in their mind.

The show also marks Geller’s romanticized and widely publicized comeback to Israel. He left in 1972 to pursue a worldwide, profitable — and at times notorious — career as a paranormalist, entertainer and author. Geller immediately signed on to “The Successor” when Keshet Productions approached him with the idea. At the time, he was visiting Israel on a mission for the International Friends of Magen David Adom, which he chairs.

For the next few weeks, he’ll shuttle between Israel and his mansion outside of London for the weekly live tapings, although he recently bought an apartment in Jaffa so he can spend more time in Israel, even when the show is over.

“Spiritually, mentally, psychically, I’m attached to Israel,” Geller said. “I was born here. I’m a sabra. I also have a dream to make the performers become as famous as I am.”

The winner will headline at a tourist hotspot in Macao, China, and receive a secret prize, plus the chance to boast of being Geller’s heir.

“I think they are fantastic, professional entertainers,” Geller said of his potential heirs. “They are riveting, mesmerizing. Each of them has a personality”

Aside from talent, Geller is also looking for charisma, charm, personality and stage presence. Each week a contestant is voted off by viewers at home, but the final choice will be up to Geller.

At the start of each show, Geller demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his own touch. He successfully “mind-read” the image an El Al pilot drew in his cockpit prior to landing (it was a fish) and located a expensive diamond necklace hidden in one of five Chanukah candle boxes.

However, Geller, whose patriotism has been triggered anew by his return, won’t be satisfied with passing just one torch (or shall we say a telekinetically altered spoon): “I would love to take them to Las Vegas as a team and create some kind of a Uri Geller show. I feel like it’s about time that more Israelis become well known and famous around the world, because how many do you know?”

Not-So-Nice Jewish Boy

When Israeli producers came to America to audition Jewish men to star in “Nice Jewish Boy,” their upcoming Bachelor-type reality show, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. After all, who better than me — a commitment-phobic, ardently secular, anxious, heavily medicated, pale glass of short Jewish water — to represent the American way?

This could be a chance for me to make a real difference in Israeli-American relations. I began to fantasize about my very own harem of glistening Israeli chicks in sweaty army fatigues, and all that we could do to and for one another in the name of world diplomacy. I’d learn invaluable lessons that only these gorgeous Israelis could teach me: how to shoot an Uzi, how to chain smoke and how to have zero respect for someone’s personal space. I, on the other hand, would pass on such valuable American skills as: driving a block away to Starbucks to spend $3 on a cup of coffee, how to say the words “excuse me” and, most importantly, how to apply underarm deodorant.

So, after my initial inquiry and some e-mail exchanges with the producer, I received a phone call from the show’s production coordinator in Israel at 6 a.m. No. You heard that right. Six. In the morning.

So anyway, in my groggy, disoriented state, the production coordinator (who we’ll call “Galit”) gave me my flight information. Coming to, I finally asked Galit, “So, who’s picking me up from the airport, and where will I be staying?”

There was dead air on the other end of the line. Then Galit responded: “Emmmmm, you can take a taxi, no? And, emmm…. We cannot put you up. OK?”

The thought of being stranded in Queens at 1 a.m. had me suddenly wide awake. Galit sensed my panic, and said that she was going to check with the producers, and that she would call me back in a half hour (read: 6:30 a.m.). Before getting off the phone with me, however, she asked if I could call some people in New York and see if they wouldn’t mind putting me up. I told her that I’d call everyone I knew. She hung up. I went back to sleep.

A half hour later, the phone rang. It was Galit: “Did you find anyone to put you up?”

I deadpanned, “Nope. I called 20 of my closest New York friends. Everyone’s all booked up for the summer.”

This clearly went over her head as she pushed on: “Not to worry, because I am a magic worker! I got you a hotel to stay! I work magic, no?”

Now we were talking! Clearly, all that needed to have happened was a little negotiation on my part. It looked like my American capitalist negotiation skills had trumped her primitive shuk haggling.

Galit said cheerfully, “We’ll put you up for one night at the Howard Johnson. This is good, yes?”

Emmm, no! Any hotel that is more famous for its flapjacks than it is for its, well … hotel, I’m gonna have a problem with. I don’t care how good their breakfast is — 11 hours of flying for six hours in New York was a deal that I was not going to make. There was some more dead air on the other end of the line.

“Hello?” I asked.

And then, out of the blue, Galit said six words that absolutely floored me: “C’mon, what angle can we work here?”

Angle! What angle can we work here? I was appalled. How about the angle of human decency? Or, an angle that doesn’t involve maple syrup and butter? I told Galit that either they were going to fly me out, pick me up and put me up for two full days, in a non-pancake-themed hotel, or I wasn’t coming. Period.

Well, my good-old American tenacity worked, because she finally acquiesced. Well sort of. Because when I landed at JFK on Friday night, there, of course, was no one to pick me up. The next morning, after showering, shaving, gelling, and sucking in my gut, I was off to meet the producers of the show.

The questions were probing and personal, and mainly focused on my past relationships. Here is a quick sample:

Israeli Producers: What sorts of things do you do to relax?

Me: I like to drink a little.

Israeli Producers: (Blank Looks)

Me: Um, well, okay, more than a little. Oh yeah, and I frequently like to get in touch with myself….

Israeli Producers: (More blank looks. And then….) What’s the most expensive gift you’ve bought one of your past girlfriends?

Me: You’re supposed to buy them gifts?

Israeli Producers: (Additional blank looks.)

Me: Does dinner count as a ‘gift?’

Israeli Producers: (See above.)

Me: (Slightly uncomfortable, and then taking a bold swing.) I gave them the gift of … the joy of being in my company?

That’s about where they wrapped up my audition. The next day, I flew home to L.A. with a promise from the producers that they’d let me know the following week if I made the cut. A month has passed since, and I still haven’t received any 6 a.m. telephone calls. Not that I’m waiting by the phone for an answer or anything. I mean, who’d want to be on some stupid reality TV show where 20 women fight over you? Not me, that’s for sure!

God, I’m pathetic.

Anyway, a week ago, I read in the Jerusalem Post that a “nice Jewish boy” had finally been chosen. Apparently, his name is Ari Goldman, and he lives in Manhattan where he runs a highly successful vintage comics enterprise. In other words, I lost out to a guy who collects comic books for a living. I always knew I’d rue the day my mom threw out my Green Lantern collection. I hope you’re happy, mom. The Green Lantern could have gotten me some serious tuchus.

Jonathan Kesselman created and directed “The Hebrew Hammer.”


A Bigger Sunday

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old-timer, the Jewish festivals of yore — the ’70s and ’80s — had a distinctive communitywide feel to them. The festival that was once held in Rancho Park drew thousands of people from across the communal spectrum — young, old, Orthodox, Reform, Israeli, American, rich, poor.

Part of the celebration was a morning march through the city, the marchers waving flags and accruing donations for Israeli charities for each mile they walked. The booths reflected the entire spectrum of Jewish involvement, and the entertainment — David Broza, Theodore Bikel — had a multigenerational, cross-cultural appeal.

“It was amazing,” said Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stuart Vogel of the Rancho Park Jewish Festival — affirming my nostalgia. “The whole Jewish community turned out.”

“We’d start at 8 a.m., walking,” recalled Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. “Everyone was there for the cause. You grew up in your little enclave — your synagogue, community center — then you all came to this. It was a very unifying event.”

That was clearly not the case Sunday, May 15, at the Israel Festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys.

To be fair, by most measures, the Woodley Park gathering was a success. Putting together any Jewish event on that scale is like herding cats in a hurry, and the organizers did a praiseworthy job, pulling off a well-run, well-attended event.

At least 30,000 turned out on the hottest Sunday afternoon of the year. I wandered around, taking in the humanity: the anti-Gaza-withdrawal group in their bright orange T-shirts placed with something like black humor next to the booth of Americans for Peace Now, their political nemeses. The black-clad Chabadniks offering passersby the chance to lay tefillin, as Israeli beauties wearing barely anything paraded close by. Everyone pausing to look skyward as a parachute team swirled down from the sky trailing American and Israeli flags. The Latino servers at the Cafe Tel Aviv serving ex-pat Israelis their cafe hafooks, almost just like in the old country.

If you were there, chances are you would have enjoyed yourself.

But, chances are, you weren’t there.

The crowd was largely Israeli, by some estimates 90 percent. On a day when the entire Jewish community could have been represented, most weren’t. I spotted just a couple of rabbis there. The community activists and organizations heads who attended showed up primarily to work — they couldn’t not be there. The El Cab crowd, the Hillcrest crowd, the masses of non-Israelis who used to swarm Rancho Park, they just didn’t show. (If you were one of the few present from those communities, go ahead and write your rebuttal, but you were the exception.)

Many organizations and synagogues even scheduled competing events. Chief among them was Big Sunday. Big Sunday, a wildly successful mitzvah day-for-the-masses, was founded by David Levinson as a volunteer program of Temple Israel of Hollywood. It has now grown to include dozens of synagogues and non-Jewish institutions. Last Sunday its 7,000-plus volunteers fanned out across the city to do everything from cleaning the L.A. River to singing for seniors. Last year I did a Big Sunday project in the morning and the Israel Festival in the afternoon. This year I could only do one.

The truth is, most people who pick choose one or the other, limiting the reach of either. For all the bigness of Big Sunday and the Israel Festival, in terms of drawing the entire spectrum of the Jewish community, both could be bigger.

Part of the reality is that the L.A. Jewish community has changed drastically since the Rancho Park days. Back then, the Persian, Israeli, Russian and Orthodox Jewish communities were smaller. Now each can sustain its own festival.

The community of yore was also more cohesive. Partly this was demographics: A more homogenous L.A. Jewish world remained largely unified around a core of temples and service organizations as well as a shared post-World War II perspective of how things were and ought to be.

I wonder, too, if the idea of marching with the Israeli flag began to be less dreamy and more politically freighted in the years following Israel’s incursion into Lebanon War and the Palestinian intifadas. Now Jewish and non-Jewish protesters would swarm over such a march like June bugs on an unscreened porch.

The result is an Israel Festival that has supplanted the annual communitywide Jewish festival without really substituting for it. The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance joined forces with the Israel Festival this year in hopes of blending the disparate communities, but clearly more work and time is needed for that to happen.

“I really feel sort of split about the festival,” said Bouskila, who grew up in West Hollywood but served in the Israel Defense Forces. “The Israeli side of me felt very at home. The American Jewish side of me felt, ‘Where is the American Jewish community?’

“Are they not part of this? Why can’t the entire Jewish community be there?”

The long-term effects of this seem obvious — a declining sense of attachment to Israel on the one hand, and a declining sense of belonging to a broader local Jewish community on the other.

But the optimist in me wants to believe this, too, will pass. If, for now, groups of us are separating out, more comfortable apart than together, perhaps the next generation will realize the value of a larger unified community and come together.

I noticed in this paper a report that Israel Television is launching its own version of the popular American reality show, “The Bachelor,” in which 15 single Israeli women will compete for the heart of an eligible Jewish American male.

Maybe that’s just where we’re at, we Israeli and American Jews — not married, not divorced, yet still interested in dating.


Living for Yesterday

Tel Aviv — There is barely a line at Counter 15 of Israeli passport control, but still an older guy manages to try and cut me, even though his wife clearly sees that I’ve been there first. He pretends his line was for my counter, although it’s clearly diagonal, for the empty Counter 16.

“Excuse me,” I say loudly in Hebrew. “The line?”

“What? I was waiting here,” he protests weakly, busted.

I roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders and cut him off right back. Funny how your native personality returns when surrounded by savages. Kill or be killed, I say.

There is none of that old smelly pushing and jolting for luggage. Everyone has a spot at the carousel, as lonely luggage pieces slide down the black conveyor belt, searching for their parents.

Customs doesn’t stop me. Do they ever stop Jews anymore? Once they were busting people for hidden stashes of electronic goods and other items that would get taxed up the wazoo, but nowadays, like at most airports, it’s terror they’re concerned with. (I feel as if I could travel with a kilo of an illegal substance, but all they’d confiscate is my nail clipper and tweezers.)

Non-Jews, especially Muslims and Arabs, are almost regularly pulled aside — just this past Tuesday, they detained an Arab Yedioth Aharonot correspondent. For him it was the usual.

Walking past customs, up to the glass sliding doors is always somewhat magical. What surprise will be waiting behind door No. 2?

Tonight, a few-dozen people line the metal gate. Some are holding signs, some are holding balloons or flowers or both. But if there’s a familiar face out there, you’re not going to miss it these days.

But I don’t expect otherwise. When the doors open, I don’t really expect to find hundreds of people shouting at their loved ones, climbing over the gate to break through the crowds. I don’t expect to have to sift through the faces nervously, one of many visitors to the place. I don’t really.

This is just the way it is here. “Status Quo,” as they say in peace negotiations. Tourists, for the most part, don’t come here, especially Americans, especially the nonreligious. Yes it’s the terror; yes it’s hurting the economy. The streets are bereft, the people are depressed and things are not what they once were. Yadda yadda yadda. Everyone knows the problem, everyone can find fault, everyone can feel guilty, or accusatory, or both.

Will American Jews and Israeli Jews continue on in this endless cycle of blame forever? One side feeling abandoned, the other feeling the call of duty too great to bear? What does this pingpong idealistic argument do for anyone?

Perhaps it allows some to mourn what was: To remember how Americans would visit Israel in droves, helping to make tourism Israel’s No. 1 industry; to remember how Israel would give American tourists an instant connection to their Judaism. To wail over the way that things have changed — not to mention the lost lives and peace process — is also to live in the past.

And it is the past. Even though it’s only been three and a half years since the second intifada began, we have to face the reality that Israel is a different place than it was in the last decade of the last century. And American Jews’ relationship to it is different, too — whether we care to admit it or not.

Here in Israel, things are not really different. Things are returning to “normal,” my friends say. The cafe I’m at tonight is pretty full, especially for midweek; it even takes a minute or two to wait online for the two guards checking bags at the sealed door. We stop for a moment when we hear a bang — “It sounds like a purposeful explosion,” my friend Shauli says, pantomiming the action of a robot blowing up a suspicious object. “No telltale sirens afterward,” he adds, and resumes eating his tomato soup.

What can you do, except return to real life, even when real life has changed so drastically. People get used to anything. Even a breakup between Israel and the world. Maybe it’s time to look back to the way things were before the first intifada began 16 years ago, even before the Six-Day War, when it first became popular to come here. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s (when you had to take a boat to get to Israel), American visitors were far and few. But still we managed a connection.

And that’s what we need to do now — forge a connection despite everything. If we can’t do it by bringing ourselves, we must find another way. The question is how.

Saddam’s Fall Seen Just as First Step

Israelis have a long score to settle with Saddam Hussein:
The former Iraqi dictator promised to destroy the Jewish State, fired 39 Scud
missiles at Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War and paid hundreds of
thousands of dollars to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

So, not surprisingly, Israelis were jubilant at news of
Saddam’s capture by U.S. forces in Iraq, a mood reflected by the Tel Aviv stock
exchange, which rose more than 3 percent on the day.

However, seasoned Israeli analysts are less euphoric. While
acknowledging a best-case scenario in which Saddam’s capture spurs the
Israeli-Palestinian peace track, puts pressure on Syria to seek a peace
agreement and enhances Israel’s strategic position in the region, they say that
much still has to happen in Iraq for that scenario to materialize.

The key question, they say, is whether Saddam’s capture
leads to a significant reduction in the number of guerrilla attacks on U.S. and
allied forces and leads to a more stable, pro-American Iraqi regime.

If that happens, the benefits for Israel could be enormous.
But if the attrition and chaos continue, the positive impact of Saddam’s
capture could dissipate quickly.

On the face of it, Saddam’s final, ignominious exit should
put more pressure on the Palestinians to seek an accommodation with Israel. The
radical Arab forces pressing the Palestinians to reject all peace offers have
been weakened, and Saddam’s capture further reduces the radical hinterland
Palestinian hardliners look to for support.

Conversely, it strengthens the regional standing of the United
States and adds weight to the U.S.-sponsored “road map” for
Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the Ma’ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit wrote that
there is an Israeli establishment assessment that “the removal of Saddam from
the catalogue of burning problems will release new energy in America’s
involvement here.” Caspit assumed that the road map will be strengthened, the
Palestinian Authority and Israeli prime ministers — Ahmed Qurei and Ariel
Sharon — will be forced to deal with each other and Sharon’s putative
unilateral steps will be deferred.

But will the Americans, still embroiled in Iraq, have the
resolve to exploit the moment to pressure both Palestinians and Israelis to
move forward? Israeli Cabinet ministers think not.

On the contrary, they expect U.S. pressure on Israel to
ease. Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, for example, believes the United
States now will be “far more confident in carrying out its campaign against
the ‘Axis of Evil,'” and give Israel more leeway in fighting terror.

Any reduction of U.S. pressure would be a problem, said
analyst Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Bitterlemons.org Web
site and a former senior Mossad operative. In Alpher’s view, the capture of
Saddam will only move the Israeli-Palestinian track forward if President Bush
follows it up by “knocking some heads together” on both sides of the
Israeli-Palestinian divide.

“But,” Alpher said, “this is not the direction we are moving
in. On the contrary, we are moving toward low-level crisis management
throughout the U.S. election period and throughout the crisis in Iraq — and the
U.S. is still facing a crisis in Iraq.”

Writing in Yediot Achronot, analyst Nahum Barnea doubted
whether Sharon will exploit the U.S. success to take the initiative on the
Palestinian track.

“What can Sharon learn from Bush’s achievement?” he asked.
“First, that he who dares, wins. He sets the agenda. Sharon has known this
truth for 50 years. But knowledge is one thing, action another: The chasm is
deep and the feet are heavy. He wants to, but it’s not easy for him.”

In congratulating Bush, Sharon suggested that Saddam’s
capture could herald the beginning of the end for dictatorships throughout the Middle
East, with major strategic benefits for Israel. In a veiled allusion to
neighboring Syria, Sharon said, “The dictatorships, and especially those
tainted by terror, learned a historic lesson today: The enlightened
international community showed that it can defend freedom and defeat terror
when it has to.”

The analysts, though, have their doubts. They are skeptical
about the chances of a democratic Iraq emerging from the chaos, let alone
setting off a domino effect of democratization across the region.

Yediot Achronot’s Alex Fishman wrote that “Saddam’s capture
is not an earthquake, not in Iraq and certainly not in the Middle East. Its
impact on our regional conflict is marginal, at most.”

Alpher pointed out that the Sunni Muslims who have ruled Iraq
for 13 centuries are a minority and, even without Saddam to egg them on, they
fear that U.S.-style democracy would lead to their removal from power — reason
enough to continue a rearguard action to resist democracy.

“It takes a stretch of the imagination that Saddam’s capture
is going to put the democratic domino effect back on track,” Alpher said. “That
I don’t see happening.”

Still, Alpher said he sees major short-term strategic gains
for the United States and Israel. Saddam’s capture dramatically enhances U.S.
credibility in the region, and that, he said, “is a boost for American
deterrence and, by association, for Israeli deterrence, too.”

If, despite the expert assessments, the United States is
able, within a year or so, to put into place a genuine, functioning democracy
in Iraq, that would send a very important message across the Middle East.

There’s even an outside chance that a pro-American Iraq
might even seek relations with Israel. And that, in turn, would be certain to
impact on Bashar Assad’s Syria.

In a recent New York Times interview, Assad spoke of peace
with Israel as a strategic choice his father had made, and one he intended to
pursue. A democratic Iraq, at peace with Israel, would give him added

But, the experts say, capturing Saddam is only one necessary
step in that direction. There is still a long way to go. Â

Saddam’s Turbulent Past With Israel

The capture of Saddam Hussein puts another nail in the
coffin of an Arab dictatorship known for its anti-Israel activity and rhetoric.

Here are some of the most significant events in Saddam’s
regime and his contentious relationship with Israel:

1957 — Saddam joins the Ba’ath Party.

1969 — Saddam is appointed vice president by President Ahmed
Hassan al-Bakr. Soon afterward, Iraq hangs 17 alleged spies, including 11 Jews,
in what is seen as Saddam’s first strong message to Israel.

1979 — Saddam becomes president of Iraq, carrying out a
bloody purge in which dozens of military officers and

party officials are executed.

1980-1988 — Israel is mainly on the back burner for Saddam
as Iraq is embroiled in a bloody war with Iran.

1981 — Israel bombs Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.
Israeli officials defend the strike in the face of worldwide condemnation,
arguing that Saddam’s regime is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Years
later, some of the same voices that condemned Israel in 1981 say the strike was
the correct move.

Late 1980s — Iraqi and Israeli officials engage in
high-level contacts in an attempt to end mutual hostilities.

1991 — Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian
Gulf War. Under American pressure, Israel does not respond militarily.
Casualties and damage from the attacks are minimal, but the rain of missiles
traumatizes many Israelis and strengthens Saddam’s image among Arabs.

1992 — Five Israeli soldiers are killed in a military
accident in Tze’elim. On Tuesday, Israel admitted publicly for the first time
that the exercise was training for an assassination attempt on Saddam

2000-2003 — Saddam provides millions of dollars in cash
payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers during the current intifada.

2003 — Despite fears that he would again strike Israel,
Saddam does not fire missiles at the Jewish State during the

U.S.-led war in Iraq. On Dec. 13, Saddam is captured by U.S.
forces near his hometown of Tikrit. Â

The New Face of the UJ

Sitting in his sunny Bel Air hilltop office, the president of the University of Judaism (UJ), Dr. Robert Wexler, is in a cheerful mood.

A high-profile lecture series of top American and Israeli personalities is generating national attention and an unexpected financial bonanza. The university’s continuing education arm is innovating new programs and drawing close to 10,000 participants. Enrollment in the young rabbinical school is running higher than anticipated.

Granted, there are also some nagging problems. As always, the fluctuating fiscal health of the institution is worrisome. The uncertain impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and a sliding economy has Wexler "holding my breath," he says. Undergraduate enrollment remains low. And some critics charge that the UJ has forsaken its responsibility as the flagship of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast.

The evolution of the University of Judaism and its 50-year-old president are closely intertwined. The UJ was founded in 1947, and Wexler was born three years later. In 1968, fresh out of high school, Wexler took his first UJ course during the summer session.

After receiving a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at UCLA and his ordination as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), followed by a lectureship at Princeton University, Wexler joined the UJ in 1978 as assistant to the dean of students.

In 1992, he followed the highly respected Dr. David Lieber as UJ president.

The institution Wexler took over was co-founded by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and by the JTS in New York, the rabbinical training and academic center of the Conservative movement. UJ’s guiding philosophy, however, was formulated by the great Jewish educator and thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of the path-breaking "Judaism as a Civilization."

"Kaplan viewed the role of the Jewish university as a multicentered institution, in which the teaching of the liberal and fine arts was of equal importance to the training of rabbis," Wexler says.

The founding lay leaders of the UJ, men like Dore Schary and Milton Sperling, came from the Hollywood film industry and shared the view that the UJ should give equal emphasis to culture and to religion.

As to his personal outlook, Wexler says, "I am an observant Jew, but I feel just as comfortable with a social-action Jew or a cultural Jew."

He acknowledges that UJ administrators may not have consistently clarified their philosophical viewpoint, leading later to criticism among some Conservative synagogues.

In practice, Wexler interprets the UJ’s "general educational mission to the community" and "eclectic approach to Judaism" broadly enough so that it easily accommodates a lecture series featuring former President Bill Clinton (Jan. 14); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Feb. 11); political strategist James Carville (March 11); and Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (April 22).

Spearheaded by a massive advertising campaign — including full-page ads in the Western editions of Time and Newsweek featuring the slogan, "If the University of Judaism can bring today’s leaders to L.A. — imagine what it can bring to you," — the lecture series has been met with a public response that has even stunned its organizers.

The lectures were originally booked for the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but as the wave of ticket requests rolled in, they were quickly transferred to the Universal Amphitheatre, which seats 5,000 in the orchestra level, and 1,200 in the mezzanine.

After the change of venue, the idea was to restrict seating to the lower level, but as demand continued, the upper level was opened up as well. By early this week, all but a hundred of the mezzanine tickets had been sold, and it’s almost certain there will be a full house by the time Clinton takes the podium.

"I had no idea this series would be so popular," Wexler says, even though all four speakers have been closely involved in American-Israeli relations "I guess people, especially after Sept. 11, want direct access to those who have been in power. It’s different from seeing them on TV," he adds.

The financial payback on the lecture series is equally impressive. Assuming the mezzanine is also filled, a total of 6,200 tickets will have been sold.

Of these, 120 tickets went for $2,500 each, with the holders entitled to a private dinner with each of the speakers. That’s a total of $300,000.

Next, 400 people bought tickets at $400 each, entitling them to attend post-talk receptions for the speakers. That’s another $160,000.

That leaves 5,680 general reserved seats for the series, going at $180 each, totaling $1,022,400.

The grand total thus comes to $1,482,400.

What about the expenses? Both Wexler and the Harry Walker Agency in New York, which represents Clinton and Barak, declined to discuss the speakers’ fees.

However, inquiries to other booking agencies and to professionals familiar with the process yielded a fairly close consensus on the following going rates:

President Clinton: $100,000-$125,000, plus expenses for three people and transportation by private jet.

Albright: $50,000-$70,000, plus first-class plane fare.

Barak: $50,000 and first-class fare from Israel for himself and party of two. (Since Barak is scheduled for other appearances in the United States in April, the transportation expenses might be shared.)

Carville: A bargain at $20,000, plus first-class airfare.

So, fees alone for the four speakers range between $220,000 and $265,000, not including airfare. Even doubling this figure, and more, for rental at Universal, transportation, advertising, extensive security, first-class hotel accommodations and dinners, the UJ should end up with a very handsome profit, which Wexler says will go for scholarships.

Not everybody is cheering for the lecture series. Wexler says he has received about 20 messages objecting, some quite forcefully, to the democratic and liberal orientation of the speakers.

Others charged that Clinton and his advisers "have aided and abetted the foes of Israel," in the words of one writer. And one or two notes alluded to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"We have previously received similar messages, from the other side, when we had conservative speakers like [talk show host] Dennis Prager," Wexler says. "We are not honoring or endorsing any speakers, but we will continue to present them as long as they are respectable and we can learn from them."

The lecture series was the brainchild of Gady Levy, the 32-year-old dean of UJ’s department of continuing education, whom Wexler credits with reinvigorating and expanding UJ’s sizable outreach and extension program.

Close to 10,000 people annually participate in a diversified program of classes, tours, lectures, seminars, forums and special events, mainly held in the evenings and on Sundays.

Levy also launched Yesod ("foundation" in Hebrew), an intensive two-year biblical and Jewish studies program, held in partnership with 10 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues.

Now in the works is a videoconferencing program, linking UJ faculty with adult students in Palm Springs and San Jose.

Innovative projects are under way in other parts of the campus. At the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, director Ron Wolfson is working toward formation of a Jewish Teacher Service Corps, modeled on the Teach for America program.

He hopes to alleviate the shortage of qualified teachers in Jewish day schools and synagogues by enlisting alumni of Birthright Israel and other Israel-centered programs, as well as recent college graduates in Jewish studies, for one- to two-year stints as teachers. (For more on visiting lecturer Mimi Feigelson, see page 52.)

Seminars and workshops for teachers and parents, directed by Risa Munitz-Gruberger, are emphasizing the key role of family education.

The university’s performing arts program hosted the world premiere of the full-scale musical "Haven," and Wexler is looking toward edgier projects, such as staging translated Israeli plays and readings of the works of younger Jewish writers.

"We have all this Hollywood talent here, and we want them not just as donors, but as participants," he says.

On the construction front, the current project is the Auerbach Student Center, which will serve as a combination fitness and student union center, with an adjoining Olympic-length swimming pool, soccer field and basketball court.

The UJ does not field any athletic teams, but under consideration is formation of a debating team, which should be a natural at a Jewish liberal arts college.

Visitors — impressed by the attractive UJ campus, the diversity of its activities, and frequent media attention — are often startled to learn that only 223 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled on a regular, year-around basis.

The College of Arts and Sciences teaches 103 undergraduates, well below its earlier peak. The master of business administration program, designed for future administrators of nonprofit organizations, has 36 students. The Fingerhut School of Education, which grants master’s degrees in education and behavioral psychology, has 20 students.

The one branch of the academic program that is exceeding enrollment projections and is on the soundest financial footing is the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, with 64 future rabbis enrolled in the five-year study program.

"When we started the Ziegler school in 1996, we thought we’d take 10 new students each year, for a total of 50 at all five levels, because there wouldn’t be enough jobs for any more," Wexler says.

But since then, rabbinical job opportunities have greatly expanded beyond the usual congregational pulpits, especially in the fields of education and community service.

"Now even The Jewish Federation has a rabbi in residence," Wexler marvels. "Who would have thought of that 30 years ago, when The Federation barely tolerated its Board of Rabbis."

Plans now call for the annual admission of 20 new students in the rabbinic school, and a total student body of 100.

The UJ also co-sponsors two programs in Israel. A one-year program for high school graduates, conducted jointly with Young Judea, is currently dormant, in light of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. However, a third-year program for rabbinical students, a joint venture with the JTS, remains on course.

Among some Conservative synagogue members, particularly those who have been part of the Conservative movement from childhood on, criticism is being leveled at the UJ and Wexler administration on both philosophical and practical grounds.

"I used to think of the UJ as the center of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, but now the only thing Conservative about it consists of the Ziegler rabbinical school, Camp Ramah and the Introduction to Judaism classes," says Michael Waterman, vice president of finance at Valley Beth Shalom.

As it stands now, "the UJ has marooned the Conservative movement and left it without a focal point," says Waterman, adding, "If the Conservative movement is to survive, it can’t be a loose confederation of synagogues, with each rabbi or board of directors making their own rules. There has to be a central authority."

His criticism is reinforced by Jules Porter, a former member of the UJ board of directors and past president of both the university’s Patrons Society and Sinai Temple.

"I am disappointed that the UJ has been turned into a generic cultural and community institution, whose ambition seems to be to become the Princeton of the West Coast," Porter says.

Wexler acknowledges these criticisms as a "fair statement," but believes that the critics are nostalgic for a type of institution that never really existed.

The UJ has never aimed to be the flagship of Conservative Judaism or the interpreter of Conservative religious doctrine, Wexler argues. "Our rabbinical school is Conservative. The rest of the university is basically nondenominational."

Doctrinal interpretations lie partially within the purview of the JTS in New York, but mainly with the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative rabbis, Wexler says.

"When the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards rules, for instance, that it’s OK to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat — but only to the synagogue — or that openly homosexual rabbis cannot become members of the Rabbinical Assembly, then Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson [dean of the Ziegler school] has to comply with these rules, regardless of how he feels about them personally," Wexler notes.

A second criticism by Waterman and Porter, more immediate and emotional than philosophical differences, turns on the UJ’s past and planned actions in "evicting" other Conservative organizations and school classes from its campus.

The West Coast offices of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, and the United Synagogue Youth, were asked to find other quarters some time ago.

But what brings the critics’ blood to a boil now is the UJ’s demand that the Los Angeles Hebrew High School move its Sunday classes off campus.

Currently, the school’s seventh- to 12th-graders meet twice a week at seven different synagogue locations, but the 400-500 students study together on Sundays for three and a half hours in 25 UJ classrooms. The UJ space was provided free until last June, when the school was asked to hold its Sunday classes somewhere else. When Hebrew High objected, the UJ asked for $100,000 for a year’s extension, says Waterman, an attorney who teaches ethics classes at the school. The parties ultimately agreed on a $50,000 payment, with the matter to be reopened next June.

One result of the friction between some Conservative synagogues — with VBS in the forefront — and the UJ, is that VBS has changed the beneficiary of its annual fundraising breakfast. Formerly, all the proceeds went directly to the UJ. Now money is specifically earmarked for the Ziegler rabbinical school, although, Waterman says, the Ziegler school is already well-endowed, while the 54-year-old UJ as a whole is running in the red.

Waterman readily concedes that his criticism of the UJ represents a minority viewpoint among Conservative synagogue leaders.

More typical are the opinions of Elaine Berke, also a VBS member and a past president of The Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance, who serves on the board of UJ’s think tank, the Center for Policy Options.

"I wasn’t brought up in the Conservative movement, so I don’t have a particular ax to grind," she says. "Every institution has to grow up and assume its own identity. It may be a good thing that the UJ has become nondenominational."

Wexler says that the contentious Hebrew High issue simply comes down to a matter of space, and that organizations not part of the UJ have to go to make room for the university’s expanding continuing education and cultural programs.

While Wexler regrets any loss of financial support, he notes that the UJ is relying less and less on synagogue donations and more on contributions by individuals.

While he would not cite specific figures on the UJ’s financial situation, he observed "We are subject to ups and downs. Like any corporation, in flusher periods we upsize, and in leaner periods we downsize.

"We are holding our breath now to see how the events of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy will affect us. We’ll know better by the end of the calendar year."

One of the more drastic downturns confronted the UJ in 1997, when, facing a $2 million deficit, the administration terminated the jobs of 14 of its 100 faculty and staff.

Another below-the-surface indicator of fiscal problems has been the "unnaming" of the College of Arts and Sciences. In the 1980s, it became the Lee College, in honor of British philanthropists Norman and Sadie Lee, presumably after a large donation.

Two years ago, the "Lee" name was dropped, following "a confidential understanding with the Lee family," Wexler says.

The university is now looking for a new sponsor, one bearing a hefty endowment. One report — that if no such philanthropist is found the college may have to close down — was firmly denied by Wexler, who says that there are "no plans whatsoever" to discontinue the college.

Toward the end of the nearly two-hour interview, Wexler turned toward the future of the 54-year old university"All our programs are directed toward one goal, and that is to make a real impact on the shape and direction of American Judaism," he says. "We are very much a California institution, which means that we will always be innovative, that we will always look forward."

Together in Nature

For the eight Israeli and nine American teens in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, Project Hevrei Teva, the scene was right out of the movie "Deliverance," only this scene, a campground in Sequoia National Park, was real life, and a real bear was standing before them.

None of the Israelis had ever seen one before. Project leader Josh Lake, head of the Shalom Nature Institute, which helped develop the month-long program, calmly directed the teens to stand together and start waving their arms high in the air. Suddenly, the absent-minded bear stopped slobbering over the teens’ backpacks and looked around; something had spooked him. The next thing they knew, the bear was hightailing it for the woods.

"It must have been our stench," laughed Lake, describing the scene. By that point, the teens had gone for nine days without a bath, and the smell likely would have scared just about anybody.

Bears weren’t the only big animals the Israelis would see for the first time on this trip, and going without a bath for so long wasn’t the only sacrifice the Americans would make either. But when the idea of Project Hevrei Teva was being cooked up a year and a half ago in Israel by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, that wasn’t even on the agenda.

The original idea was to bring American and Israeli teens together to study the connections between nature and Judaism, pairing Israeli scouts (Tsofim) with Camp JCA Shalom campers.

Given the situation in Israel, the group settled on a month-long program in the States, with two weeks devoted to the road — camping, kayaking, white water rafting, hiking — and two weeks at the Shalom Nature Institute in Malibu. At the Institute, they constructed a garden with the flora of Israel (which happens to be the same as in Southern California).

What nobody could have foreseen at the time was the byproduct of this pairing: the connection, not between nature and Judaism, but between the two groups of teens, of understanding and empathy.

"It’s been a fantastic exercise in partnership and cooperation," Lake said, as he watched the teens build the garden together, high on a bluff overlooking Camp JCA Shalom.

"When the Israelis came the first day, they asked, ‘Where’s the security? There’s no security here.’ Our teens were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ The Israelis said, ‘Every time a leaf snaps we think it could be a terrorist.’ "[One of the things] the Americans found out was how nervous the Israelis are about security," Lake said, "And the Israelis found out when you go to the mall, you can walk right in without having your backpacks checked. It’s been a tremendous education."

Both groups of teens confessed that the connection between the two was hard at first, but has gotten easier, especially after two weeks of camping. Now as they build the garden, even the language barriers are breaking away: the Israelis are learning American slang, and the Americans are speaking in Hebrew sentences. When it comes to building the garden in the shape of Israel, with Israeli vegetation and good old American organic mulch, the teens are also working on a happy medium. "The Israelis are very opinionated; you have to compromise a lot!" said one Los Angeles teen.

"But it makes sense," said another. "They want to have a say because it’s where they live. They will ask you ‘Why?’ and question you about your choices [about the garden]. It forces you to make sure you know why you’re doing something and to back your reasons up better."

"At the beginning there wasn’t that good of connection," said a girl from Tel Aviv, "but now we’re doing better. Our English is improving — my English teacher will be very proud of me."

"I like the Shabbat ceremonies," said an Israeli boy. "In Tsofim, we don’t have a connection to the religious; it’s more fun and more beautiful the way you do it here."

"Yeah, everything is very good," said another. Of course, being far from home (for some, the first time ever), homesickness has been part of the Israeli experience, too. When given the opportunity to change into their scout uniforms for a photo, the Israelis whooped and hollered, spontaneously breaking out into Hebrew camp songs with giddy joy.

"I think it will be a shock for them to go back to Israel," Lake said, watching as the Israeli girls walked hand in hand across the great expanse of the future garden to retrieve their uniforms. "When you’re worried about your security, you’re not thinking about organic farming."

The Shalom Nature Institute is a department of the Shalom Institute, the resident camping arm of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. For more information, please contact Jonathan Fass, director of Jewish Education for the JCC. (323) 938-2531, ext. 2280.

Majoring in Courage

These are tense days for the Los Angeles parents of Jewish students studying at Israeli universities and yeshivas. Their sons and daughters are among some 4,000 Americans studying in Israel this year in a wide range of programs. Major universities, yeshivas, kibbutzim, the Israel Defense Force are just a few of the institutions that offer American students programs in Israel. According to the Israel Aliyah Center, there are l00 students from Los Angeles currently studying in Israel.

With the escalation of violence engulfing the Palestinian territories, the parents of these children worry and ponder issues of safety and security while maintaining close daily contact with their sons and daughters by phone and e-mail. When the crisis intensified, it was expected that many students would return to their homes in the U.S. Instead, 97 percent of the students from the L.A. area have elected to stay in Israel, maintaining their studies and offering their moral and physical support to the embattled Jewish state.When it became clear that the cease-fire was not holding in the conflict, and alerts were issued to the students by the State Department, Dana and Gary Wexler told their daughter Miri, who is 20 and studying at Hebrew University, that they wanted her to return home.

“We have been very concerned for her safety,” Dana told The Journal. “We trust her judgment, but you never know when you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. ” But Miri chose to stay.”She loves Israel,” Dana said. “She’s thrilled being there. She knows the language. She took the ulpan and is very fluent.”

“This crisis brought me face to face with all the issues of my Jewish and Zionist ideology, of what would I do,” said Gary. “Would I take my child out if push came to shove? And I realized I would. My first priority as a Jewish parent is the concern for my child’s safety, not my responsibility to Zionist ideology. But my daughter chose on her own to stay.”

Asked how he felt about his daughter’s decision, Gary replied, “I’m frightened, I’m jittery. On the other hand, I’m proud of what Miri has chosen to do while she stays. She went and got herself a job at the YMCA kindergarten, which is a coexistence kindergarten of Jewish and Arab kids. Because she really believes that they need to learn to live together.”

Gregg and Merryl Alpert’s daughter, Sarra, 20, is also studying at Hebrew University and has also decided to remain in Israel. A literature major, Sarra won a national essay contest prize from Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel, for an essay in which she wrote about her relationship to Israel.”We feel our primary job has been to support her in how she has worked through this decision,” Gregg said.

“We told her, of course, we’re concerned for her safety. But this was a decision she needed to make. We were there to advise her and to help her think it out and offer her whatever support she asked for. We wanted to make sure she knew she had our permission to get on a plane and come right home if she wanted to. I was proud of how she thought it through.” he said.

In Sarra’s prize essay, which was titled “The Lizard’s Tail,” she described the tension between the desire to seek the richness of life and the knowledge there are really frightening situations in the world. “And now, in Israel, there’s a classic example of that situation,” said her father.

Sol and Pearl Taylor’s son, Benjamin, 23, is studying at Darche Noam, a yeshiva in West Jerusalem. Benjamin graduated from UC Santa Barbara, majoring in political science, and had previously spent his junior year at Hebrew University. “We keep in touch daily,” Sol said. “I would prefer he be here, but if he feels he’s comfortable there, it’s okay.”

Sol described how Benjamin developed a strong feeling for Israel. “We come from an orthodox background,” Sol said. “Benjamin started going to an Orthodox shul, Shaarey Zedek, becoming shomer shabbos. He’s similar to his grandparents.They were founding members of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.”

While Sol emphasized his family’s support for Israel, he too cited the Palestinian conflict as a source of unease. “Those Jewish settlements in Gaza: who would want to live in such a Godforsaken place? And they’re just another thorn in the side of the Palestinians living there.”

Yael Weinstock, who is 18 and planning to become a rabbi, is studying in Jerusalem on a program called Nativ, a United Synagogue project of yeshiva study for Conservative youth. Her parents, Alan and Judy Weinstock emphasize that Yael’s choice to stay in Israel was “her own decision.”

“We’ve been quite calm about it,” Alan said. “We have only asked her once if she felt a desire to come home. She said no. Each family has to make their own decision.”

For the Weinstock family, as for so many others, the Holocaust remains a cornerstone of their love of Israel and their belief in its importance. “My parents are survivors from Poland,” Alan said. “So when my daughter went to Israel, she could meet family and friends of my parents for the first time, people she’d heard about for many years. They were the real chalutzim of the country. So for my daughter, that connection to Israel is very strong.”

“We’re proud of her all of her life,” Alan continued. “She’s a very special young lady.”

Defusing Tension

While violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have captured the headlines in recent weeks, Jewish and Arab leaders in major American cities are working quietly to forestall confrontations between their communities.

Their efforts are marked by some common guidelines.

Don’t try to solve – or even discuss – the basic issues roiling the Middle East. Acknowledge deeply felt differences and go on from there. Condemn any act of violence by their co-religionists in the United States. Build on the trust established in previous years in joint battles against discrimination.

In Jewish communities, the efforts are spearheaded by both mainstream and liberal organizations and are most fully developed in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York, cities with the largest Arab and Muslim populations.

“We started establishing contacts with the Arab community after the signing of the Oslo accords seven years ago,” says Allan Gale, assistant director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit. The area holds some 200,000 Arab Americans, twice the number of Jewish residents.

“We have worked on such issues as discriminatory immigration laws, racial stereotyping and ethnic profiling at airports.

“We’ve had some incidents and some vociferous Arab spokesmen, but on the whole relations are good,” add Gale. “The Arab community here is reticent to act in an unlawful manner.”

In Los Angeles, some 10 Jews and five Arabs met Oct. 17 in the sukkah of one participant. Although all were aware of the Mideast tensions, the meeting had been scheduled some time ago as one in a series of monthly meetings by the “Dialogue Group.”

The group was established more than a year ago, when representatives of the two communities signed a code of ethics in a public ceremony.

“We try to keep open our lines of communications open and learn about each other’s culture and faith,” says Elaine Albert, the urban affairs director for the Jewish Community Relations Committee.

The lines of communication do not include anything as dramatic as secure hotlines or red phones in case of threatening confrontations, “but we are constantly in touch with each other via e-mail or phone,” says Albert.

Jewish membership in the dialogue group include the mainstream Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, represented by Albert, and individual members of the Orthodox and Reform communities. Not surprisingly, the group has a strong liberal representation.

One member is attorney Gideon Kracov of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), who says, “We have a joint interest in dealing with hate crimes and maintaining an attitude of mutual respect.”

Douglas Mirell, the PJA president, observes that “we’re in a period when it’s easy to be carried away by emotions and to say things that we may come to regret later. We need to curtail the level of rhetoric here and the level of violence in the Mideast.”

Another liberal activist is Rabbi Allen I. Freehling of University Synagogue in Brentwood, who says, “We will experience more difficult times, but I’m optimistic that we can maintain a relationship of trust and respect with the Arab-American community.”

A leading Arab voice within the dialogue group and on the Los Angeles scene is Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

Al-Marayati tends to attract controversy. A year ago, his appointment to the National Commissions on Terrorism was rescinded under pressure from mainline national Jewish organizations, which described him as an apologist for terrorists.

Many Los Angeles Jews who have worked with al-Marayati took issue with this description, and his organization strongly condemned the recent destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus by rampaging Palestinians.

“Our dialogue with the Jewish community is working,” says al- Marayati. “We are both free communities, and if we can’t talk to each other, how can you expect Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other? At all times, we must show zero tolerance for violence and hate crimes.”

Phone calls to other leading Arab organizations in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Arab-American Institute, went unanswered.

Al-Marayati said that the lack of response did not indicate a reluctance to talk to the Jewish press, but simply that for the past few weeks, Arab spokesmen have been inundated by media calls. “I only get to answer one in 10 requests,” he said.

In New York, Michael S. Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, is one of the key figures in the “Coalition of Concerned Arab-Christians, Jews and Muslim New Yorkers.”The coalition will meet next Monday and recently released a statement, noting, “Although the tensions that currently exist in the Middle East can intensify emotions here in New York, we can not allow these events to divide our city.”

In addition, “isolated incidents must not be used as an excuse for scapegoating or reason to condemn entire communities,” the statement noted, adding,” By working cooperatively, this coalition can serve as a model for our children and a shining beacon guiding other groups toward resolving their differences.”

Stopping the Violence

It’s no secret that Israelis experience many of the same social ills that Americans do. However, there has never been an official study to identify the breadth and nature of domestic abuse in the Jewish State… until now.

A survey — the first of its kind in Israel — was recently conducted by the Los Angeles/Tel Aviv Partnership — a coalition formed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — to help social workers and government welfare bureaus understand the country’s domestic violence and sexual abuse problems, and to prescribe solutions. The domestic violence covered in the findings includes all manner of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Supervised by Dr. Yosefa Steiner and Dr. Minah Zemach, the study is comprised of statistics culled from interviews with anonymous women reached at home during the day. In all, 1,019 households were polled, serving as a representive sample of the total population of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa vicinity. In addition, 101 ultra-Orthodox residences and 100 Arab homes were studied. The research also included information on services available to address social disorders, the degree of coordination between them, and their accessibility to those who require them.

Until the Partnership launched this study, an official survey of Israeli home violence had not been attempted. The initiative for conducting such research was not a question of money, but of timing. Awareness of these issues rose to the surface in recent years, after a dramatic rise in reported child abuse and incest cases from 1990-1993, and some high profile spousal abuse cases that even included murder.

This domestic violence project was a by-product of the Partnership, in conjunction with the Department of Social Welfare and Health of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel (JDC-Israel), and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (the Partnership’s parent organization). A budget for the survey totaled $46,000, with $25,000 of that total budget coming from the Jewish Community Foundation; $15,000 from JDC-Israel; and another $6,000 from the municipality of Tel Aviv.

Says the Partnership’s local chair Herb Glaser, “It’s apparent that the Jewish people have problems in this arena irrespective of geography or economic class or the religious vs. secular component. And we have a mutual problem in both communities, which we didn’t expect to find.”

Both communities are on the minds of the people behind the domestic violence study. Last March, a Partnership symposium invited Israeli field workers to visit agencies within the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles systems. They learned about multicultural populations, family violence court, Jewish shelters, and the county’s Domestic Violence Council — a consortium of community, law enforcement, and social services personnel.

A subsequent gathering last June sent a team of experts to Tel Aviv: a USC School of Social Work professor; representatives from Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Services; Jewish Family Service (JFS) employees; and Fredi Rembaum, director of Israel and overseas relations for the Jewish Federation.

Vivian Sauer, director of Adult and Children Services for the Federation-run JFS, commends the work-in-progress nature of the enterprise: “Personally, I thought it was [an] extremely productive way to bring two communities together and come up with some concrete proposals to work on these areas, based on the needs of these communities.”

Adds Nissan Pardo, Ph.D., who chairs the Partnership’s Los Angeles Health and Human Services Committe, “From the early 20th century, the spirit in Israel is that we’re responsible for each other and that carries over… up till today. There’s more of a common spirit. The way they handle batterers and individuals is very different than what is done here. That is from what we can learn.”

Rembaum also evokes this Israeli theme of collective responsibility: “In Israel, providing [for] the people’s needs is the business of the government and if services aren’t met, they must find a way to provide them.”

In fact, Tel Aviv actually has a program that extricates the male batterer from the household and commits him to counselling services.

“We don’t have that here [in the U.S.],” says Rembaum. “We have jails.”

Rembaum looks forward to the next step in the Partnership’s strategy: “Right now, we are preparing a proposal for funding to implement workplace training in Tel Aviv. Los Angeles representatives will start working with them in the next few months.”

The training will teach employers and supervisors how to identify and treat victims of abuse.

From Israel, Ellen Goldberg, director of Planning and Evaluation for JDC-Israel, communicated to The Journal her pleasure in being involved in this ambitious welfare undertaking. Goldberg reports that USC professionals have been assisting the project on every step of the survey.

Says the administrator, “This has enabled [Los Angeles and Tel Aviv agencies] to understand different perspectives to problems and their solutions.”

As an example of the cross-cultural influence taking place, she cites the establishment of a Tel Aviv counterpart to Los Angeles’ Domestic Violence Council.

“We are bringing fresh approaches to solving problems in each other’s domain,” says Goldberg. “[Ultimately, it will help] create better solutions and services for our respective populations and needs.”

Researchers’ findings include:

* Incidents of domestic violence have taken place in 12.5 percent of all households in Tel Aviv. That’s a high figure, relative to findings in other nations.

* Women were the targets of violence in 7.0 percent of households, while minors were the victims in 17.7 percent. Also high, as are the findings below.

* In two-thirds of the families polled, both women and children have been abused.

* Physical abuse occurred in 10.7 percent homes, while sexual abuse occurred in 2.8 percent of the families sampled.

U.S. at Center Stage in Syria Talks

They were called “Syrian-Israeli” talks, but this week’s second round of negotiations between the two countries was very much an American affair — in a storybook small town chosen by the White House, with President Clinton playing host and mediator.

So it was no surprise that when the talks were snagged over a disagreements over what to talk about, it was Clinton who held the negotiators’ hands, cajoled, nudged and pleaded.

Administration officials have concluded that only an unusually active American role can achieve closure in talks in which the two sides are close on the details of an agreement — but psychologically far apart.

That’s in keeping with the views of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who headed the big Israeli delegation that arrived at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in bucolic Shepherdstown, W.Va. on Sunday for talks held under an unusual shroud of secrecy.

The expanded U.S. role has risks, many observers say, especially because it could lead to expectations that Washington can’t back up with action.

And to critics, it merely reflects a peace process in which the Syrians have little interest in making peace with Israel, and all the interest in the world in cultivating ties with Washington.

“It suggests that even if an agreement is reached, it would be grudging,” said Daniel Pipes, a Mideast analyst who has criticized the current peace process. “The administration is giving Barak what he wants. And Barak is reflecting the Israeli body politic, which simply wants out, and is willing to give the Syrians anything they want.”

The setting for this week’s talks — a sequestered conference center ten miles from the nearest Interstate highway — was meant to force Israeli and Syrian negotiators into closer contact.

But the remote setting did not obviate the need for an overarching U.S. presence. That role quickly boiled to the surface on Tuesday, when the Syrians wanted to start with the question of borders — and the Israelis insisted on beginning with security.

That forced Clinton and his team of negotiators to center stage. After another round of presidential intervention, the “procedural hurdle” was overcome, according to a State Department spokesman.

But nobody expected that would be the last 911 call to the White House.

“We are still at least a dozen crises away from an agreement,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “One of America’s jobs is to strike a difficult balance between stepping aside when things are going well — and stepping in when there are logjams.”

Also, he said, Assad’s driving desire to improve relations with Washington requires a more active U.S. role.

“Assad won’t even let his negotiators into the room with the Israelis without the Americans present at every step,” he said.

Israeli officials concede that the reclusive Syrian president has his sights set on Washington, not Jerusalem, but say it doesn’t make any difference as long as he is willing to sign a detailed agreement that includes what Barak deems sufficient security guarantees.

Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer working in Washington and a veteran of earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations, said President Bill Clinton’s heavy investment in this week’s talks — and Barak’s willingness to come back for Round Two, despite the fact that he was negotiating with Syria’s foreign minister, not President Assad — shows how close the two parties are to an agreement.

Both sides want close U.S. involvement, he said, because “at the end of the day, the two parties will also turn their faces and maybe their hands to the United States to contribute its own share to the success of the negotiations — beyond their good advice.”

Administration officials deny they have made any specific commitments, but most observers agree that at least the implication that U.S. money, equipment and possibly peace monitoring forces will follow an agreement could be critical in getting the two sides over the last few hurdles.

The Master Class

Not all of them were Jewish, but they were definitely the chosen people — five Los Angeles and 33 Israeli film students brought together for a two-week “master class” in screenwriting at Tel Aviv University. Held under the auspices of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership, the class was designed to give a boost to Israel’s film industry by improving the capabilities of Israel’s future scriptwriters. A further aim — a subtext, to use the screenwriting term — was to strengthen sympathy for Israel among American film professionals.

The “master class” consisted of two weeks of all-day classes, nearly as many contact hours as two semesters. Aimed at “teaching writers to write,” the class was taught by two Emmy Award winners from Los Angeles, Alan Armer of Cal State Northridge , who created and wrote the TV series “The Fugitive” and “The Untouchables,” and David Howard, founder of the USC screenwriting department, whose writing credits include “My Friend Joe” and the animated series “Rugrats.” The overall project was organized and coordinated by Dr. Judy Marlane, chair of the Radio, Television and Film Department at Northridge and author of the newly published, “Women in Television News Revisited.”

Does Israel’s film industry need big brothers in Hollywood? It certainly couldn’t hurt. Israel’s film industry is small and produces few feature films — only seven or eight a year, estimates Israeli director Eli Cohen, who has collaborated on projects with American filmmakers. Typical budgets for Israeli films are well under $1 million, a fraction of what most Hollywood films cost. And these films do poorly at the box office, even in Israel, says Tammy Glaser, another observer of the local film scene.

The scripts for Israeli feature films, Glaser adds diplomatically, “leave a lot of room for improvement.” Israeli-based Glaser, a former Angeleno who produced “It Was a Wonderful Life,” the story of six middle-class, homeless women, also noted that lack of money, an emphasis on documentaries and the appeal of television, make it “virtually impossible to get a feature film made here.”

With that in mind, the 33 aspiring Israeli screenwriters knew they were storming the battlements. Consequently, they were thrilled to learn that the half-dozen best scripts to come out of the class — as well as attached writers — will be brought to Los Angeles. The writers will have a chance to work on their projects under the supervision of leading Hollywood professionals.

They might also find, suggests Cohen, that in Israel, their most likely market is not in feature films after all, but in television. Calling the idea of the master class “very valuable,” Cohen suggests that it would give a boost mostly to Israeli TV, which is constantly hungry for good writers for documentaries, soap operas and dramas.

For all participants, the class was an exercise in culture-jumping. The Israelis, all majors in screenwriting at local universities, constituted a diverse group that included Tel Aviv cosmopolitans and kibbutznikim, Jews from the Galilee and the Negev, and even a Maronite Christian woman from an Arab village near Safed. For the American students and faculty, culture shock was even greater. After they were set down jet-lagged into foreign territory, they had the challenge of integrating with or teaching students whose background and training was unfamiliar to them.

But by the end of the first week, all initial apprehensions had been set aside. After American students were paired with “adopting” Israeli students, the group came to feel itself as an integrated whole, and everyone was working hard. Things were going so well, in fact, that students, faculty and coordinators were developing plans for a second master class.

For next year, participants see a need for smaller groups and more teachers, since, they all agree, writing cannot be taught effectively in a lecture format. Another necessary improvement will be better and quicker translation. Although all the Israelis spoke English, they wrote in Hebrew, creating a logjam in preparing their assignments for class use and evaluation. It was also too bad, participants felt, that the American students had no background in Israeli films and filmmaking (the Israelis knew American films quite well), and that none of the teachers came from the Israeli industry. Nonetheless, everyone agrees, this was a pilot project that is likely to take off.

The five Los Angeles students who participated in this year’s master class were Maria Berns (UCSD); Robert Davenport (UCLA), winner of the UCLA Screenwriters Showcase Award in 1997 and 1998; Fullbright scholar Tony Kellam (UCLA); Beverly Neufeld (UCLA), head of the Drama department at the Compton Magnet High school for the Visual and Performing Arts; and Jaime David Silverman (UCLA).

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership is sponsored by the L.A. Jewish Federation and the Municipality of Tel Aviv.

Connections: Israelis and Americans

About two weeks ago, I attended a three-day conference in Jerusalem along with more than 3,400 Americans and Canadians and 2,000 Israelis. We North Americans had all made the journey despite State Department warnings that travel in the area was unsafe, in part because of an expected confrontation with Iraq. But when we looked to see how Jerusalemites were reacting to our presence, we discovered that, in general, the Israeli world outside our convention center all but ignored us.

In the Israeli press, for example, there were few stories, most of them buried. When I talked with a taxi driver, a hotel clerk, a group of students at a cafe, even assistants in the mayor’s office, I found little knowledge about us and even less interest in what we were about. It was the classic example of Israeli disinterest in the comings and goings of Diaspora Jews.

Perhaps this disinterest was justified. The occasion, after all, was a bureaucratic gathering of American and Canadian Jews for the 67th General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America. The UJA Federation conferences, which, among other things, are concerned with raising money for Israel, are not known for their sex appeal or for the news headlines they generate.

But this occasion was to be different — more than just a change of venue from an American city to Jerusalem. Its focus was presumably linked to Israel and Israelis: Namely, this was an attempt to look at issues of Jewish identity both in Israel and the Diaspora. What we had forgotten was that Israelis, for the most part, were indifferent to the world of the Diaspora, except when Jews were literally in danger.

Actually, this was not news to me. The conventional wisdom among my Israeli journalist counterparts is that the Diaspora holds little interest for most of their countrymen. The reason being that many think of themselves primarily as Israelis, not as Jews. Their conflicts seethe with passion over matters of nationhood, not religion. Even the struggle today between the haredi and the secular Jews in Jerusalem is a political dispute, not a religious one. For those of us in the Diaspora, the message is clear: You want to be heard, to be taken seriously by us, then make aliyah.

A glimpse of this was highlighted in a film shown at the GA: “I’m an Israeli who happens to be Jewish,” said a likable young man on camera. His identity, he indicated, was vested in nation, not religion. After all, that was the dynamic he shared, the central value that linked him to everyone else. They all served in the army, faced a common enemy, responded politically to differences in goals and interests, but, nevertheless, were still bound together by a common language and a national history. It was an Israeli culture that defined their lives, and being Jewish, which they took for granted, was only a part of it. We as American Jews were apparently locked out, not because of rejection, but because we were inconsequential.

Israel’s political leaders, I know, are not quite so insular. They recognize their own special need for connections to the American Jewish world. But it is precisely our role as influential Americans that they find so crucial, not the presence or absence of Jewish heritage or knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish culture. Our strength in Washington is what’s essential: for military support, for economic aid and for backing within the United Nations. In short, what they want is national, not Jewish, assistance, and that we Jews can provide it is a boon to Israel and to us.

Why to us? We want, I believe, the myth of the Jewish homeland and the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies it…even though we are only marginally a part of the story.

In the end, what we seek to retain is a connection with Israel. Until now, we have simply gained that connection through philanthropy, coupled with the use of political leverage in Washington. Today, philanthropy will no longer serve us. Israel is economically on a par with much of Western Europe, and the amount of private money we raise is relatively modest.

At the GA meetings, several Israeli leaders proposed that our local Federations hold back a sizable share of the contributions for Israel. Utilize it to help your own communities, primarily to further Jewish education, they urged. But the Americans protested. This was shortsighted on Israel’s part; moreover, it did not take into account our need to make a contribution, to have a presence in Israel.

What should that presence be? I am bothered that much of the present talk tends to jump to a grand scale. Israelis may seem indifferent to us, but we increasingly see in them an answer to our greatest problems. How do we stem the rise in intermarriage, improve Jewish education, master Hebrew? It sounds like an exaggeration, but many of the panaceas imply that strong ties with Israel will do the trick. As a solution, it has the virtue of shifting the focus from our own door, and of creating a different (but simpler) dilemma: Namely, how can we improve our ties with Israel?

What’s required, I believe, are local, specific exchanges complete with content and interaction. For example, there is already in place a lovely program that originated in Los Angeles through the efforts of many players. Essentially, three schools in Los Angeles have been linked with three in Tel Aviv: Tichon Hadash with the Milken Community High School; Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles with the Magen Elementary School; and, on the middle school level, the Abraham Joshua Heschel Community Day School in Northridge with Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon School.

The planners and benefactors of these programs reach across many layers of the society within the two cities: Parents and teachers and school administrators function as essential partners in the endeavor; the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped initiate the partnerships and provides some support for them; so, too, do the municipalities of Tel Aviv and Los Angeles; and there’s aid from the Jewish Agency and resource people as diverse as Beverly Hills resident Herb Glaser, who serves as co-chair and who sits on the Board of Israel’s Jewish Agency, all the way across to the University of Judaism’s education professor Hanan Alexander.

The curriculum is planned jointly by teachers and administrators in Israel and here; there is daily e-mail correspondence between the students, especially on issues of Jewish identity; and built into the center of the program is the concept of student exchanges.

All of this represents a start that can only be looked upon with great enthusiasm. Will it lead to Jewish unity? To a sense of shared values and Jewish peoplehood? Perhaps — at least in some instances with some particular individuals.

The point is programs such as this reinforce strong ties between individuals and families, not nations. And, if nothing else, they are likely to lead to rich education experiences and long-term friendships that extend to the years that lie ahead. — Gene Lichtenstein

Conference Explores Peace Through Education

Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and how to achieve it: That was the topic on everybody’s lips when the 24th Annual Academic Conference convened at the Century Plaza Hotel last weekend. The panel, sponsored by American Friends of the Hebrew University, was followed by a luncheon featuring keynote speaker Dennis Prager, the KABC radio host best known for his “Religion on the Line” program.

During the three-hour panel titled “From Conflict to Conciliation: Two Sides of the Same Story — An Israeli and Palestinian Perspective,” Dr. Ruth Firer, a Holocaust survivor, and Dr. Sami Adwan, a Hebron-raised Palestinian, talked about their research and their commitment to bring their two cultures together through education.

Firer and Adwan discussed strategies they have developed at the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, which include focus groups and revisions of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks so as to give schoolchildren a more balanced and empathetic read on their respective and shared histories. In the hope of positively influencing future generations on both sides, the Israeli-based academians will target impressionable pre-adolescents with their methods. Despite their enthusiasm and optimism, the team promised no overnight solutions, describing their work as the beginning steps of a long-term process.

Rounding out the panel were Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller, who served as moderator; Paul L. Scham, J.D., research development coordinator at the Truman Institute; and Joe E. Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, who drew parallels between Israeli-Palestinian dialogue problems with communication breakdown in multi-ethnic Los Angeles.

After the conference, Prager admitted to the luncheon crowd that he has always been “in the middle” regarding the intersection of American Jewry and Israeli politics. The radio personality lectured on the importance for American Jews to concentrate on establishing a strong religious and cultural identity in this country, rather than meddling in Israeli issues. Basing his opinion on discussions with American Muslim and Jewish leaders over his 15-year broadcast career, Prager placed his faith in American forms of Judaism and Islam as role models to resuscitate their ailing Middle Eastern counterparts. — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

A Drink from the Same Cup

If the pursuit of peace in the Middle East will not unite the parties concerned, then one life-sustaining element may. Israeli, Arab and American researchers and engineers have come together to find ways to produce more potable water for agricultural use, as demands for supplies of Middle Eastern and Californian freshwater continue to increase.

“Urban demands [for water] are increasing with the increase in population and standard of living,” said Uri Shamir, head of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Water Research Institute, a multidisciplinary research center that focuses on the science, technology, engineering and management of water. Fresh water that has been used for agriculture, said Shamir, must be shifted to the cities.

“If we want to maintain agriculture the way we have at the moment, we need water and more water,” said Raphael Semiat, head of the Rabin Desalination Laboratory at the Technion, a laboratory funded by Los Angeles businessman Rob Davidow, who’s a world leader in waste-water and sea-water desalination R & D.

With water resources limited throughout the Middle East, the Palestinian-Jordanian-Israeli Water Project has been launched to research new, safe, cost-efficient methods to irrigate crops. One of the more popular methods researched and employed by the project’s committee, which is composed of scientists from the Technion, Ben-Gurion University, Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and the Palestinian A-Najjah University, is waste-water recycling, a method that purifies waste-water with minimal harm to the environment.

Soon, even this process will not suffice, and the more expensive sea-water desalination process will supplant it — especially in California and Israel, where sea water is abundant.

“It’s a solution that is not free of difficulties, but it is basically on your own territory, using an infinite source — the ocean,” said Shamir, who is currently conducting research in management of disputed international waters at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sea-water desalination works in one of two ways: a thermal process, which evaporates and then condenses clean water vapor, and water membranes, which filter water through tiny pores about 0.1 micrometers small.

Researchers from the Rabin Desalination Laboratory have worked with I.D.E. Technologies (formerly Israel Desalination Engineering) of Ra’ananna, Israel and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California who have joined with Parsons Corporation of Pasadena and Reynolds Metals Co., to design a state-of-the-art, generic desalination facility that could purify up to 80 million gallons a day using the thermal process. After two years of R & D, the design of the 540-foot tower is now complete, and the partners are looking for investors to implement the design and construct a plant. The most viable locations for the plant are along California’s coast, since Israel’s coast is more populated.

The Jordanians and Palestinians are less likely to employ sea-water desalination because they have little or no access to the sea. Nevertheless, efforts are still underway to conduct joint research on desalination with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists. The Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Water Project, however, needs more funds as well as a more peaceful political environment to resume this research with full force.

“We are trying to continue unhampered,” said Shamir, who believes that cooperation for knowledge for society’s benefit will eventually override any disharmony caused by nationalistic strife.