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.”

 

Pipes Bring More Than Water


Our aging yellow school bus slowly drove up a steep mountain in a verdant forest in Honduras. I wondered why the bus driver was stopping at a seemingly random spot on the worst road I have ever seen. There were coffee and cornfields left and right. A herd of cows meandered down the road. As I peered out the window at the chickens rampaging beneath the mango trees, I noticed that a small crowd of women and children was gathering to stare back. And then I realized that this was it — this section of road was a village and my home for the next six weeks.

This past summer I and 14 other high school students lived and worked in Cuesta del Neo, a tiny aldeo of 70 families in rural, mountainous Honduras. Our mission: to build a pipeline several kilometers long to bring potable water for both domestic and agricultural uses to the village, which had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

We volunteered with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit organization devoted to ending poverty by furthering sustainable development and promoting international human rights.

The people of the village lived in immense poverty. There was one streetlamp that sometimes worked. There was one television, about four radios and, more often than not, there was no way to power them. There was no indoor plumbing. School was available to most young children in the village, but secondary school was a two-hour uphill walk if your family could pay for the uniforms. Books were virtually unavailable.

The men worked long hours farming, and the women worked even harder to keep their families fed. The village has not received government aid since 1983.

I expected the impoverished to be downcast and hardened, burdened with the pain of existence and the suffering that plagues them. Nothing could be further from the truth in Cuesta del Neo. The attitudes of the people reflected such vibrancy and exuberance that I could hardly believe these were the same people who struggle just to have enough food on the tables for their large and extended families.

We worked hard on the pipeline. Digging with shovels and pickaxes in waist-high mud is no joke. We worked with a nongovernmental organization called Proyecto Aldeo Global (PAG), which helps aldeos to develop agriculture, technology and education. PAG works with villages that have asked for help as a community, and as such all members are required to participate in the development.

A rotation of men came to work with us digging the ditch, and they were so adept with a shovel that we felt completely useless. While we made pitiful little scratches in the dirt, these men were carving Grand Canyons through forests of roots. We felt inadequate and in the way. Then one of my group leaders, a Peace Corps worker, explained that we were not there only for the actual labor, but also as motivation for the villagers — our efforts gave them hope. Together we cheered when the water rushed through the pipes for the first time.

Not only did we get the experience of the physical labor, but we also got the cultural experience of living in homes of villagers. We shared their food, their stories, their precious few photographs. We shelled beans that had been picked by hand and dried on clotheslines. They taught us Spanish and we taught them English — the most common sounds echoing through the adobe houses were “?Como se dice?”, “How do you say…?” and lots of laughter.

The American teens all practiced different forms of Judaism, from secular to Orthodox. We did our best to make keeping kosher and Shabbat easy. We ate only vegetarian food, cooked with new pots and did not travel or drive on Shabbat. One of our more creative innovations was an “eruv” made of dental floss. We took turns leading Shabbat services. We also studied Jewish texts relating to sustainable development, poverty and the responsibilities that accompany us as Jews.

My experience has helped me to understand that through an accident of birth, I am lucky enough to live in the United States, where I have the responsibility to make a difference. It seems a daunting task, but as Ruth Messinger, the president of the AJWS, has repeatedly said, “We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed.”

As Americans, and especially as Jews, we are in a unique position to call attention to injustice and to work to correct it. Judaism does not require us to complete the task, but we are required to attempt it. I challenge us to do more — to end our complacency and to create opportunities for us to do good in the world.

For AJWS information, visit

First Person – Hatikvah in the Village


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

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

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

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

I was soon to find out how wrong I was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milken Teens Live, Learn on Skid Row


 

Keep passing. Keep passing.”

It’s 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in March, and students from Milken Community High School, wearing hairnets, plastic aprons and gloves, are dishing out hot cereal, sugar, applesauce, milk and a muffin assembly-line style onto blue trays.

“We’re a well-oiled machine,” says 11th-grader Ethan Stern, the last student in line, who — with a smile and a “good morning” — hands a tray to each of the 130 males living at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

The 22 Milken juniors and seniors, who arrived the previous afternoon with several teachers and administrators, are spending two days and nights at the Union Rescue Mission, sleeping in bedrooms on a locked floor reserved for volunteers. They are taking part in the mission’s Urban Experience Program, a 52-hour hands-on community service project in which they live and work at the mission to learn about the complexities of hunger and homelessness.

“We have to leave our comfortable communities to see how the rest of Los Angeles lives,” says Wendy Ordower, community service coordinator at Milken, a transdenominational Jewish day school in the Sepulveda Pass. “Like at Yom Kippur, we need to be disturbed.”

Breakfast continues till 10 a.m., during which time the students bus dishes and wipe down tables, serve another 350 women and children and, after a short break to eat their own breakfast, fill trays for another 200 men.

The students spend the majority of their time serving food, with the mission providing an average of 2,200 meals daily. They also work in the warehouse filling boxes with hygiene supplies and candies, part of the mission’s Easter outreach of 3,500 packages to be distributed to local homeless and low-income Angelenos. Additionally, they tour the facility, chat and play basketball with the residents, create a mural to leave at the mission and meet as a group to reflect on their experiences.

“I had a stereotypical view of the homeless,” says 12th-grader Tannis Mann. “These are real people, and there are real reasons why they are here.”

In the evenings, the students listen to participants’ stories in the Christian Life Discipleship Program, a one-year residential program that graduates about 100 men annually, providing them with the recovery, educational and work skills needed to rebuild their lives.

They hear from Aaron, a former Catholic seminarian, who had “a little alcohol problem” and Michael, a CPA who moved to Los Angeles only to be immediately mugged and robbed of everything. They also listen to Robert, a former gang leader and prison inmate, who tells them, “Learn to make the good decisions because I made the bad ones when I thought I was cool.”

All the students pay close attention to their words.

“If I see someone on the street, I won’t see them in the same way again,” acknowledges 12th-grader Leticia Grosz.

The teens learn that the reasons for homelessness go beyond addiction to include poverty, lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, mental illness, unemployment and prison release. They learn there are about 80,000 homeless in L.A. County but just slightly more than 18,500 beds. They also discover that women and children are the fastest-growing homeless population segment nationwide.

Some of those women live in the shelter, part of a six-month program called Second Step, designed to get them back into permanent housing and jobs. Others who come to the Mission for meals are homeless or reside in daily rate hotels or single-room apartments in the Skid Row area.

The Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit, privately funded, faith-based organization, was founded in 1891. Now housed in a five-story, 225,000 square-foot facility completed in 1994, it provides an array of emergency and long-term services to the poor and homeless, including food, shelter (797 emergency and transitional beds), clothing, medical and dental treatment, recovery programs, counseling, education, job training and legal assistance.

Some former residents now work for the mission.

Irvin “Pepi” Jones, who runs the evening dining room shift, tells the students, “Ten years ago I was in that line [of homeless men]. I used to push a cart and eat out of the trash.”

The students are moved by what they see and hear.

“These people have so much faith and love for God. They have such purpose in life,” says 11th-grader Alli Rudy.

That is the kind of impact Jewish studies teacher Rabbi Ruth Sohn wants from the program.

“I hope that the kids have a greater awareness of how poverty, drug addiction and prison can destroy lives but that they also feel empowered by what kinds of possibilities exist to turn your life around,” Sohn says.

The program also reminds the students of the role they can play in changing Los Angeles’ urban landscape.

“There’s such incredible work you can do,” says 12-grader Sophie Bibas. “It’s not an option; it’s an obligation.”

As the students board the bus at the end of the 52 hours, student Karin Alpert, speaking for many in the group, says, “For sure I’m doing this again next year.”

 

It’s Time to Return to Our Mission


 

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was the most important American religious event of the past year. For Christians, its effects were quite positive, as viewers already committed to belief in Jesus were roused to renew their faith through the heartrending story of the Crucifixion.

For America’s Jewish community, the effects of the film can also be positive, if we draw the right retrospective lessons not from the movie itself but from the controversy that still surrounds it.

This time a year ago, more than a month before its release, “The Passion” was drawing tremendous hostility from Jewish leaders. Though Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director Abraham Foxman has denied that his group predicted pogroms, in fact, the ADL harped on supposed parallels between Gibson’s movie and medieval Passion plays. The latter led to mass violence against Jews, so the obvious implication was that the former could also.

In an article in The New Republic — Jewish-owned and edited — a Jewish professor of religious studies, Paula Fredriksen, in all earnestness stated not as speculation but as a certainty that when the film appeared in countries like Poland, Spain, France and Russia, savagery would erupt: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”

Of course none of this happened — despite the fact that, thanks to the widely publicized attacks spearheaded by the ADL, many more people saw Gibson’s “Passion” than would otherwise have done so.

What was expected to bring on this tsunami of Jew-hatred, not least from the same evangelical Christians who are among the State of Israel’s most ardent supporters?

As the Christian Bible tells the story and as Gibson does, the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion. This happens to be approximately the version of history given in the Talmud and by the past millennium’s greatest Jewish sage, Maimonides. I say “approximately” because, in truth, Jewish tradition ascribes full responsibility for Jesus’ death to certain Jews of the time. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is Maimonides.

Apart from exonerating Gibson, the lessons to be drawn from the “Passion” imbroglio have to do with the tactics our community has come to favor in fighting supposed anti-Semitism. There is indeed anti-Semitism out there to be fought, almost exclusively in the Arab world. But sadly, our Jewish culture places tremendous emphasis on sniffing out hostility to us where it barely exists, namely among Christians, and spends a fortune doing so.

If you doubt the prestige and authority we assign to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and its West Coast equivalent, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, just ask yourself who, on moral questions, is the American Jewish voice that gets more attention, that is treated with more grave, earnest seriousness than any other?

It belongs not to a rabbi or any other spiritual exemplar but to the ADL’s Foxman.

Don’t blame him. This well-meaning man is just doing his job, which is to raise the approximately $40 million budget that Jews yearly pour into the ADL. Anti-defamation groups stay in business by motivating us to donate. That requires continually proving the urgent relevance of what they do.

There is an automatic, built-in institutional motivation to sound the alarm at the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and to keep the alarm screaming in newspapers and TV as long and as loud as possible.

The non-Jewish media are complicit in this. But so are we. By elevating anti-Semitism over virtually any other community concern — like education or spirituality, for example — we do ourselves more harm than good.

The risk of alienating Christian allies is not the most serious issue. Religious Christians love the Jewish state for much the same reason that religious Jews do. Both see Israel as occupying a special place in God’s regard, and both see it as playing an important future role in the world’s history.

Christian affection for Israel, and for Jews, is not going to go away anytime soon.

I worry more about the function God assigned to the Jewish people 3,000 years ago at Mount Sinai. There, He called us to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and many passages in the Hebrew prophets make clear what this should mean. We are called to function as ministers to the world, which is meant to be our congregation, teaching other peoples about God.

It is a pity that, in the eyes of our congregation, the most serious moral message we have to impart has nothing to do with the Torah or with God. It’s about a generalized paranoia, an ingrained habit of issuing mistaken alarms about phantom anti-Semitism, and then to deny we ever made a mistake.

The time has come to acknowledge our mistake, even to apologize — not to Gibson, but to God. Jews have a job in the world, which He gave us. We’re not doing it now, but if we opted to reconsider where our community spends its money, how we assign our priorities, we could get down to business.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post. The author’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March.

 

More Than Surviving


Nandor Markovic was lying in the gutter, awaiting death. He had already seen his best friend shot in the head, but Markovic could not take another step on the German-led march in 1945.

“I won’t waste a bullet on you,” a soldier said. “You’re already dead.”

He doesn’t know how much time passed before he felt a shovel near his body, then looked up to see the face of an American soldier.

“Lt. Kirsch. He nursed me back to life,” Markovic says, sitting one recent morning at a cafe on Beverly Boulevard. “That was the first time I had pancakes.”

Markovic, today the owner of International Silks and Woolens, believes it is his mission to help young people understand the import of the Holocaust. It is why he attended the March of the Living, and why he independently sets up speaking engagements at local schools year-round to share his story.

Markovic — known to everyone as Marko — was oldest of six siblings in a Czech town of “200 tallesim” in the Carpathian Mountains. When his father was taken away in 1941, 15-year-old Marko helped run the shoe and clothing business until that too was taken away. In 1944 all the Jews in town were rounded up in the synagogue and shipped to Birkenau. There his mother, two sisters and a brother were immediately killed.

Marko survived through six concentration camps before he was liberated. He joined the Israeli underground in Europe, playing a role in adventures involving British diplomats he still cannot speak of with impunity today. He joined the Israeli army and fought in the War of Independence, and in 1949 came to Los Angeles.

Marko’s ready smile and winning charm — along with his bravery and generosity — made him a star among last year’s Los Angeles March of the Living delegation. He bought the girls flowers for Shabbat, and the teens still call and drop by the store to say hi.

Participant Miri Cypers remembers walking on the train tracks to Birkenau, when Marko asked them to sing with him “Ani Maamin,” the anthem of the survivors that means “I believe.”

“Marko told us that when he was in the camps and had seen what was going on, he had a hard time believing in God, and couldn’t sing ‘Ani Maamin,'” Cypers says. “But he said that after witnessing the vitality and the strength we had shown on the trip, he wanted to sing the song now with us. After seeing the vitality of the Jewish youth and the example we had shown, he could sing the song, ‘I believe.’ ” — JGF

Freedom Is at Root of Mideast Peace


I’m fond of saying my identity as a Jew formed well before
my identity as a Democrat. And I have always believed that a significant part
of my mission and role in Congress is to weigh in and provide leadership
on issues of critical concern to the Jewish community here and in Israel.

To a great extent, these issues are obvious — the
U.S.-Israel relationship, combating anti-Semitism, fighting off erosion in
First Amendment protections of religious exercise, scraping for resources and
laws that maximize the ability of Jews living under tyranny to immigrate to
Israel or the United States and ensuring the social safety net doesn’t forget
Jews in trouble.

But my Jewish identity colors how I view larger issues as
well….In so many ways my positions on issues, while not Jewish community
positions, are forged by my status as a Jew in a country that has allowed us to
thrive and prosper in so many ways.

As a 21-year veteran of the House International Relations
Committee, I have a front-row seat to the dramas played out in the Middle East.
Too many of the region’s autocrats use the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an
excuse — as a pretext — for their refusal to make substantial reforms in their
own societies.

And for too long, I’m sad to say that the U.S. and Europe
have bought these sorry excuses. We’ve operated under the assumption that once
the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets worked out, peace will come to the
Middle East as part of a domino effect. But that’s not just wrong, it’s
backward.

….In the wake of Sept. 11, it’s clearer than ever that our
principles and values do matter. Our enemies are waging an existential struggle
against freedom, pluralism and modernity.

In 2002, a group of Arab intellectuals rocked the Mideast by
publishing a document that dramatically took stock of the state of the Arab
world. The U.N.’s Arab Development report was prepared by Arabs and partially
funded by the Arab League, so there was no way the region’s leaders could
whitewash its findings. Among the report’s conclusions were:

\n

• That science and technology are comatose in the Arab
world.

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• That half of all Arab women are illiterate.

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• Fewer than 2 percent of Arabs have Internet access.

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• The entire gross domestic product in all Arab countries
combined in 1999 was less than that of Spain’s, which is a single, midsized
European country.

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• Productivity is declining.

\n

• Per capita income growth has shrunk over the past 20
years, while everywhere else, it’s been rising.

\n

• And one of the most revealing indicators of the Arab
world’s stagnation is the fact that only 330 books are translated into Arabic
per year in the whole region. In an area encompassing 22 countries and 280
million people, fewer books have been translated in the past 1,000 years than
Israel has translated since last year’s Warschaw lecture!

To state my point in another way: Israel and America won’t
have stable, long-term, peaceful relations with the Palestinian Authority or
Egypt, for example, until they’re across the negotiating table from a truly
democratic Palestine or Egypt.

So … can America help to reform and democratize the Arab
world or to help those budding forces in the Middle East who understand that
imperative, without looking like imperialist colonizers? In light of everything
I’ve said, is there any reason for optimism?

The answer to these questions, I believe, is: maybe. But one
thing is for sure: We must at least try to help the region’s reformers
facilitate change.

….Back in the United States, I think American leaders have
gotten the message since Sept. 11 that the days of looking the other way, while
despotic regimes trample human rights and then gloss them over by feeding their
people a steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Western hatred, are over.

Accordingly, there’s a new program at the State Department
called the Middle East Partnership Initiative [MEPI] that’s starting to see
positive results. MEPI’s director says that “across the region, internal voices
are beginning to speak up for change, political pluralism, the rule of law and
free speech in a manner that hasn’t been seen before.”

MEPI’s job description is to support economic, political and
educational goals in the region, as well as work on the empowerment of women.

This summer, President Bush is scheduled to make a
significant contribution to the cause by announcing a new Middle East
initiative at the June summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. The
architects of the new U.S. policy say it aims to encourage democratic and
economic reform in Arab and Muslim countries. Sounds like something everyone
can agree on, right?

Wrong. Egypt — who receives $1 billion in annual U.S.
assistance — is spearheading a massive effort to undercut the plan….

In Paris, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak played the
Israel card. He said that only an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict would allow a strengthening of popular support for reforms in the Arab
world.

Already, there are reports that the Bush administration is
backing down from the initiative. But we must carry on with it. We must not let
Mubarak and other leaders get away with this perennial excuse for delaying the
reforms their people deserve.

And let’s recognize that real peace is possible when you
reverse Mubarak’s rhetoric. Democratize the region, and you’ll solve the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict permanently. Not the other way around.

This lofty goal, of course, doesn’t mean we should abandon
the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. Of course not … but whether Israel can
find a measure of security unilaterally or in the framework of an agreement, I
say again that it would be only a short-term solution.

The only real guarantor for long-term peace and security for
Israel and America is freedom. Freedom from oppression for the peoples of the
Middle East. Freedom to elect their leaders. Freedom for women to do basic
things like drive and go to school. Freedom to access knowledge.

Passover is called ‘zman cheiruteinu,’ the ‘time of our
freedom,’ because it is the time when the Jewish people were freed from
Egyptian slavery. Perhaps this year, it’s time to begin to free the Egyptians,
so-to-speak, from slavery and grant them the freedom we as American Jews can
celebrate openly.

This Passover, I pray for the freedom of the whole Middle
East and the continued rebuilding of Jerusalem. Â

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered by Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) on March 28 at the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC. Â

My Father, My Hero


There’s a framed glass poster that hangs on the wall of Assaf Ramon’s Houston bedroom wall. While the image of the smiling astronaut in the orange jumpsuit is famous, the Hebrew words inscribed at the bottom of the poster are not:

"Assaf, my oldest son, each night, look at the sky and feel me going about there. A bit far, but close. Close in my heart. I love you, my dear, and I miss you. Take care of yourself, of mother, and of your brothers. Dad."

"Dad," was Ilan Ramon, one of the seven astronauts killed Feb. 1, 2003, as the Columbia space shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and tore apart. Israel air force fighter pilot Col. Ilan Ramon inscribed those words on the poster to his eldest son the night before he left for Cape Canaveral. It was the last time his family saw him alive.

"In retrospect, I think that it was a goodbye letter," Assaf said. "That maybe it crossed his mind that something could happen to him. Because with the words ‘take care of your brothers,’ there is a transferring of responsibilities. On the other hand, even when he went to Florida for training, he would always say, ‘Take care of your brothers.’ Clearly, now, after the accident, the words have a different meaning for me."

As the oldest of four — Tal, 13; David, 10; and Noa, 6 — Assaf seems older than his 16 years. Well, almost 16. Ramon will turn 16 on Feb. 10, the day his father was supposed to be buried in Israel last year — until the family postponed it a day.

"It will take me a few years until I celebrate my birthday," Assaf said. "I don’t think I will be in the mood. Certainly not this year."

It’s been a tough year for the Ramon’s, who came to America for what went from a two-year stint to a six-year journey to support Ilan’s mission to become Israel’s first astronaut. It was a tough year for Assaf, a shy and disciplined boy, who spoke out for the first time, to Yedioth Aharonot, Israel’s daily newspaper, about his relationship with his father, about that terrible day and his feelings of his father’s legacy.

"I have no idea how my father will be remembered in history. Until now, I haven’t tried to think about it at all," Assaf said. "I assume he will be remembered as the first Israeli astronaut. As a man who was a pilot and fought for Israel. Maybe also as a man who wanted the world to live in love and peace. I don’t know. I think of him as a father, not as a history."

lan and Rona Ramon came to Houston with their four children in June 1998, after the Israeli air force commander decided that Ilan was the man for the prestigious mission.

About two months before the trip, the parents gathered the children for a conversation. Assaf was 10, in the fourth grade.

"Mom and dad called us downstairs to the living room," Assaf recalled. "We sat on the sofa and dad took out a picture of a space shuttle and said, ‘They want me to be on one of these shuttles, so I can fly to space.’ It was night, and we were little and tired, and we didn’t completely understand what he was talking about. So we said, ‘Wow!’ and we went to sleep."

"Dad said that we would move to Houston in the summer for two years, and I thought that it could be great," he continued. "I had never been outside Israel, and I thought it would be fun, a vacation of sorts. I never knew about NASA or about the shuttle. That was the first time that I heard of NASA."

At first, Assaf found it difficult to adjust, because he didn’t know English. "You came from Israel?" many students asked him. "So what are you doing here?"

Assaf explained to his classmates about his father’s mission and that the family was stationed there until it was completed. "They said, that’s nice, but they didn’t really get excited. Honestly, they would have been more excited if my father was a football player."

Actually, Assaf started to play football when he was in the seventh grade. "I didn’t want to play at first; I didn’t want to become part of the [American] culture," he said.

But it amused him how seriously Americans took their sport. "I remember that one of the games ended 48 to nothing, against us." As Assaf walked over to his father, he noticed people getting really upset; some were even crying. "The closer I get to my father, I see that he’s smiling. And then when I get to him, both of us burst out laughing. The Americans are crying, and the two Israelis are rolling in laughter."

America, in many ways, was good for the Ramon family.

"My whole childhood, my father had worked very hard. Here, there was this feeling of a new kind of life. Suddenly, he was home when I got back from school. In Israel, that never happened."

They took many family trips together, to Texas, Florida, Panama, Denver and Toronto. They skied in New Mexico and toured in the "most fun" place, Los Angeles.

"We all went to Universal Studios on Thanksgiving, and we got VIP passes." After the kids went on the rides, they went to look for their parents. "Suddenly, we see a crowd of people around them holding pictures of my father, and he is sitting at a table signing them. It was cool," Assaf recalled. "He looked like a celebrity."

lan Ramon’s fame began way before he came to America, with his participation in the mission to destroy Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in a preemptive raid in 1981. But Assaf and his siblings didn’t learn about that either until they were in America.

"About three years ago, he put in a video of the attack and showed us, ‘Hey, that’s me, and there is my plane. This is the target, and that’s the missile.’ And then he explained to us why they did the mission and why we can’t talk about it with anyone."

Assaf recalled that his father didn’t say too much, just that it was an important and dangerous mission. "Over time, after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the terror situation in Israel began to get out of control, I understood its importance."

Ilan Ramon never made a big deal of his accomplishments, his son said. "He never bragged … take the running for example. He would run like nine miles every time. On our last vacation together, at a cowboy ranch in Texas, I joined him. We ran about six miles, and then when we started going back to the ranch, dad continued straight on the road and said, ‘Go in, I’ll do another little loop,’ and he pushed himself to do another three miles. I was so done, having trouble breathing. It was only then that I understood how strong he was."

While his father was disciplined, disciplining at home was another story.

"We would all laugh at him when he tried to get angry," Assaf recalled with a smile. "It was ridiculous, because he didn’t get mad often. But when Tal and I would fight amongst ourselves, or when I did something stupid, then my father would get angry. He would yell, but it didn’t sound like he was really yelling. Then we would start to laugh, and he would break down and laugh."

Assaf saw in his father a confidante. "I would talk to him about everything. Even about girls."

When Assaf was in eighth grade, he started going out with a local Catholic girl named Kelly. "My father would give me advice what to buy her if she got mad at me. Once he even advised me to buy her underwear." Before the Columbia flight, Assaf’s relationship with Kelly started going down hill, and Ilan saw it was driving his son crazy.

"The last time I spoke to him, on videoconference from the space shuttle, we even talked about Kelly. He said, ‘This relationship is not good for you. End it.’ Even from the shuttle he had advice for me. I would say that he never gave me bad advice in the romance department. I know that I was lucky, because how many fathers tell their children to buy underwear for their girlfriends?"

OR THE RAMONS, two years here turned into five, with the Columbia missions continuously postponed. But in the winter of 2003, they started to prepare, and Ilan went on more and more training missions. He also started to bring home NASA experiments with him.

"He would come back with these containers of disgusting food they prepared at NASA — all kinds of dry steaks, repulsive pasta and vile vegetables — and he had to eat them and afterward bring the samples of … nu, what comes out from the food after its eaten?" Assaf said. "We would make fun of him when we were eating good food, and he had to open his containers to find an unpleasant surprise."

As the mission grew closer, Assaf said the family went about its business. "We didn’t have any fears. We really, really didn’t. We were totally confident and very happy. I asked him if this whole thing was dangerous. He said that people at NASA check everything they do three or four times, and they don’t take any risks. You could say that he was also very confident. He believed in NASA completely."

The last time Assaf saw his father in person, before he went into isolation for the mission, was on Jan. 9, 2003. "It was a regular day. I came home from school, did my homework, ate dinner with the whole family and dad organized our stuff. I came downstairs to talk to him a bit. Afterward he took these giant posters with his picture of him dressed in his orange space suit, put them on the bed, and he wrote something personal on the poster to each one of us. He gave me a small hug and gave me the poster."

After they said goodbye, Assaf went into the house and drank some water. "I didn’t cry, but I felt a bit choked up, like there was something caught in my throat. And then I said to myself, ‘Why am I getting worked up? I’ll see him again in less than a month.’"

few days before takeoff, the Ramons went to Cape Canaveral. "When you see the awesome power of the ship and the missiles around it, it’s a little scary. We all cried, a cry of happiness, because it was very moving. All in all, we had waited for this moment for five years. At takeoff, [my sister] Noa said, ‘I lost my father,’ and everyone talked about it afterward. I think it was just something she said, a little girl without any real meaning. She saw the smoke and the fire and apparently was afraid."

After takeoff, they went back to Houston, and gathered every day in front of the television to watch the NASA station. "In general, the experiments were somewhat boring, but it was moving to see the astronauts talking amongst themselves. On the videoconference, dad would do tricks with M&Ms," Assaf said.

Assaf admired his father’s decision to keep kosher and observe Shabbat in space. "Dad is not a religious man, but I think it was a nice decision that honors the entire Jewish people."

On Friday, Jan. 31, the day before the shuttle was scheduled to land, the Ramons returned to Cape Canaveral.

"We stayed at the hotel, we played soccer and tennis, we passed the time," Assaf said. After watching his father on the NASA channel, he was too excited to sleep. "That night, I saw how the shuttle was coming closer to Earth, and I thought that my father was inside, and pretty soon he would be here. It was clear to me that he was coming."

They got up the next morning at 7 a.m. and drove to the landing zone and went upstairs to watch.

"We waited and waited for the sonic boom. There was a clock running backward, and a man with a microphone speaking. I remember that five minutes before the landing, someone said that they lost contact with the shuttle. I said, ‘Big deal. Why do you need contact? They should just land the shuttle alone, and that’s all.’ It didn’t seem like they were worried."

"Three minutes before the clock got to zero, a sonic boom was supposed to sound, to indicate that the shuttle pierced the atmosphere. I’m looking at the clock, and I see it go down to a minute and to continue to tick away. And then I heard a noise."

Assaf can’t exactly explain the noise, but when he asked if it was the sonic boom, he was told that it wasn’t. "Meanwhile the clock had struck zero, and still they weren’t there."

"And then two minutes after zero they started to take us out; they took us back to headquarters. They just said: ‘Come with us.’"

"The NASA people didn’t look worried. But on the way to the car, I saw one of the friends of one of the astronauts crying. I said to myself, ‘What — is he stupid? What’s he crying about? What’s he all hysterical about?’ And in the car, I saw that my mother was also very sad and worried. I told her, ‘Don’t worry. Worst comes to worse, they’ll land at a different place.’"

"At that point, I really thought they were just going to land in a different place, and that’s why they were taking us to watch the landing on the video. But I think at that point, my mom understood that that was it. That it was over."

Assaf didn’t. He didn’t even consider the possibility of an accident at landing, because the only time he was worried was at takeoff, and that had passed — seemingly without a hitch.

The family drove five minutes to headquarters and went up in an elevator into a room with some families and a few senior astronauts and waited for about 20 minutes.

"Then someone from NASA entered, closed the door and introduced himself. He said, ‘This is the most difficult task I have ever had to do ever in my life.’"

"And I thought to myself, ‘It can’t be that they’ll tell me that my father was killed. It can’t be. It can’t be.’ But I was worried. And then he took a breath, and there was complete silence in the room. He said, ‘We lost contact with the shuttle over Texas. It disintegrated. There is not a great chance of finding survivors.’"

"I remember that I got angry, and I said again, ‘It can’t be.’ I didn’t believe it. And my leg started to tremble uncontrollably. I wasn’t ready to accept it."

"Some of the children started to cry hysterically at this point, and Tal and David came to sit with us. Mom was sitting next to me, and she had started to cry when the man entered. That’s why she didn’t hear exactly what he said. An astronaut sitting nearby repeated the NASA man’s words. That’s when I broke down."

That same day, the Ramons packed up and returned to Houston. "Later I saw on TV the footage of the shuttle exploding in the air," Assaf said. "And then I finally understood that dad is gone."

he extensive investigation of the Columbia disaster showed a long line of failures within NASA. The 248-page report concluded that the piece of debris that hit the shuttle’s left side on takeoff caused the shuttle to explode on reentry to Earth. The report also said that NASA had eight different opportunities to prevent the disaster.

"We read about all the chances that NASA had to deal with the mishaps, and they ignored it," Assaf said. "It doesn’t sound like NASA, and really lowers their image in my eyes. We always looked to NASA as a very secure place, and this report shows that they make a joke of the work."

"They saw the foam that hit the shuttle already on takeoff, and they could have said, ‘Something’s not right, go back and check it.’ I’m very disappointed, and I am sure that dad, as much as he loved NASA, would have viewed this whole thing from the outside and would have also been severely disappointed."

Despite everything, Assaf is not upset his father was an astronaut. "I am proud," he said. But he thinks about his father every day.

"I am trying to pass the time," he said. "You cannot avoid sadness. Every day I think about dad and the accident, and all the things that could have happened and didn’t. I don’t cry much, but sometimes I break down. It’s like a roller coaster: Some times there are better, happier days, and some times there are days that are not so pleasant."

But, he said, that the last year has matured him, that his father’s death has given him a new perspective on life, and he has learned not to take things for granted. "I look at my friends now, how they relate to their own parents. So if my friend yells at his mother or father, I get upset. They don’t understand it like I do. That it’s all temporary. "

ow, one year later, the Ramons are preparing to return to Israel. In August, they will go to a house that is being built for them in Ramat Chen. "I think it’s time," Assaf said, adding that he knows it will be hard at first, because he will feel like a new immigrant.

"On the other hand, my mother says that in Israel there is a better community. Here, sometimes, it’s boring for me. You need a car to go everywhere, and there is a certain age for drinking, and there’s also a lot of drugs among the kids. I am ready to live in Israel, again."

For his 16th birthday, a friend of Ilan’s gave Assaf flying lessons in a Cessna. Assaf is practicing to be a pilot in the Israeli air force, like his father.

"After the accident it came to me: I very much want to be an astronaut," Assaf said. "I want to share with him what he went through and to know how he felt. I believe that that’s how I’ll feel closer to him.

The 16-year-old, who has matured a lifetime in this last year, added: "Who knows, maybe one day [Israel] will send me."

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:

Immigration

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.

Pluralism

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.

It’s a Full Plate in Nourishing the Sick


Bob S. insists that his mother back in Virginia made the best chicken soup ever, but he’s willing to admit the homemade version delivered to his Van Nuys apartment is a close second.

The delivery is part of the mission of Project Chicken Soup, an all-volunteer group that cooks, packages and personally delivers kosher meals twice a month to patients living with HIV and AIDS. It might be a chicken breast or a casserole, along with the soup, salad, fruit, dessert or even a protein drink.

Bob, who’s 61 and lives alone, said the food is crucial for him, but it goes deeper than that. “If it wasn’t for Project Chicken Soup, there wouldn’t be a connection to the Jewish community for some of us, and I wouldn’t be cooking for myself,” he said. “I don’t have the energy or the interest or the desire to eat.”

For Project Chicken Soup President Rod Barn, whose client list has grown steadily from 20 in the early ’90s to more than 100, the task of meeting a growing demand when charitable donations and grants are harder to secure is a never ending challenge.

“So far, we haven’t had to turn anyone away, and we don’t want to,” Barn said. “A lot of our clients say when they get our food, it reminds them of better times. They smell the chicken soup, and it brings them love and warmth, and that’s what we’re about.”

It’s a similar story elsewhere, from small programs to large, as medical advances mean more people are living better and longer with AIDS and HIV. Whether it’s Project Chicken Soup; Aids Service Foundation (ASF) Orange County, with its 1,500 clients; St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels, which serves 50 to 75 HIV and AIDS patients a day out of 1,650 clients; or Project Angel Food, which cooks and delivers 1,200 meals daily, they have to do more with less.

Larry Kuzela of ASF Orange County said this “has always been a struggle and continues to be. We’ve never had a waiting list, and we’ve never turned anyone away, but we have a reserve fund, and we’ve had to dig into our reserves.” Sister Alice Marie of St. Vincent’s was only half joking when she said, “I pray a lot” to make sure there is enough money.

At Project Angel Food, considered a model for this type of service nationally, Executive Director John Gile said, “We’ve added 800 new clients in 2002 alone, yet we have over 20,000 donors, with the average gift being $38. We always seem to get the gift when we need it most.”

“Since we’re based in Hollywood, we have strong support and generosity from the entertainment industry, which this year alone will help us raise a half-million dollars,” he continued. “We’re proud to say that if you call Project Angel Food today, you get a meal tomorrow”

On the other side of the table, groups that give grants and funding to AIDS service providers would like to do more, but they also must compete for donations. For example, MAZON, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which receives the majority of its donations from individuals, plans to give away approximately $3.4 million to 250 organizations nationwide in this fiscal year. Project Angel Food and Project Chicken Soup, which is under the umbrella of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, are among the grant recipients.

Grants Director Mia Johnson said, “The sense or urgency is not as strong as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, so it’s a challenge for these organizations to make sure people understand their ongoing needs and the evolution of those needs”

The nutritionally balanced meals that are provided can literally make the difference between life and death for those struggling to stay healthy, and that’s why Steven F. of Santa Monica, said of Project Angel Food’s work: “It’s very crucial. Every day, I think of it as a gift. It is something I look forward to, and it provides me with good, cooked food that I wouldn’t and couldn’t do for

myself.”

For more information about Project Chicken Soup, call
(323) 655-5330 or visit “>www.angelfood.org; for MAZON, call (310)
442-0020 or visit

Jews Say Bonjour to Club Lampadaire


In between the prayers at the Pinto Shul in the Pico-Robertson area, people who only speak English might feel a little lost.

Not because congregants there don’t speak English — they do, except they are likely to break off into French every so often, leaving behind the hapless English speakers. Likewise, if you are expecting cholent or kugel or any of the other regular foods that you find at an English-speaking shul, you have gone to the wrong place. "Kiddush" at the Pinto Shul has a North African flair. Instead of cholent, they serve salmon cooked in red sauce with garbanzo beans, rice sticky with prunes and apricots and boutargue, a special Tunisian delicacy of dried waxed fish (which to the uninitiated palate tastes like shriveled goldfish).

The Pinto Shul is one of several congregations in Los Angeles that serves the French-speaking Jewish community. Unlike other ethnic Jewish communities in Los Angeles, such as the Persian community, the French-speaking community does not have a cohesive origin. French speaking Jews in Los Angeles are predominantly Sephardic, but they emigrated from a variety of places — Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and France. Eager to escape the perceived and real hostility toward Jews in their countries of origin, and in some cases attracted by the greater personal freedoms that America offered, French-speaking Jews have been coming to Los Angeles for several decades now. They view Los Angeles as a good weather alternative to Montreal, where the French community is the largest outside Israel and France. In Los Angeles, despite their disparate origins, French-speaking Jews tend to stick together, united by the language and a shared cultural affinity.

In 1997, there were approximately 2,500 Jews of North African or French origin in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey. Today, some estimate that the number has grown to 5,000.

Up until now, this community’s organized communal life has been relegated to the synagogue. Shuls like the Pinto Shul; Congregation Em Habanim and Adat Yeshurun in the Valley; the Baba Sale Shul in the Fairfax district; and the West Coast Torah Center in Beverly Hills have predominantly French-speaking congregations.

This Chanukah, however, marks the emergence of Club Lampadaire (The Lamp Club), a new French community group in Los Angeles, which aims to unite the French Jewish community with social, spiritual and cultural events.

"I think a lot of Jews living in France see California as an antidote to the stuffiness and formality of French society, and the pleasant weather reminds us of our childhood on the Mediterranean, and it appeals to our sense of nostalgia," said David Suissa, one of the founders of Club Lampadaire, who was born in Morocco. "But at the same time, the way the city is so spread out it does not encourage the fathering of the community which would otherwise happen naturally. So we have to compensate for that by creating this organization to make it easier for us to get together on a regular basis."

Club Lampadaire currently has a membership of 600 families, and has already raised $25,000 for its events from French Jews. Suissa said that Club Lampadaire was inspired by a conference given to French-speaking Jews in Los Angeles by Yechiya Benchetrit, one of the leading rabbis in France. "During this talk he brought up the word lampadaire, lamp, and suggested that Jews are like lamps and our mission in life is to light up the world," Suissa said. "So we decided to start an association which would bring together all the different synagogues and create a family of French Jews in Los Angeles. Our slogan is Alluman Le Foi et La Joir — light up faith and joy — and our first event will be to light up the first night of Chanukah. We want to seek out all the French Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated or nonaffiliated, and tell them that they have a home."

"I have a lot of American friends, but because of the wittiness of the French language, I feel more at ease on a cultural level with Jews who are French speaking," said Lolita Engleson, a psychologist, who was born in Lebanon but moved here from France while trying to market a documentary film she made about the Jews in Lebanon.

In Los Angeles, many French-speaking Jews find it difficult to get working visas or green cards, so they attempt to network in the community to find employment and sponsors that will allow them to do so. "They love it here," said Rafael Gabay, a French Moroccan who is president of the Baba Sale Shul. "If they can live here free without having a problem with a green card, then this place is a paradise."

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.

‘Inside the Cult of Kibu’


On my first day as editor-in-chief of a heavily financed Bay Area Internet startup whose mission — its mostly female staff of trendy 20-somethings recited like a mantra — was to "empower" young women, I realized I had a big problem.

My hair was all wrong.

It wasn’t that my shoulder-length dark ringlets were unstylish. It’s just that, as I gazed at my new Kibu.com colleagues with their sleek, stick-straight blond tresses, I knew that I was different.

Besides a fellow curly-haired brunette named Lisa, I was the only Jew at the 60-person company.

In the scheme of corporate America, this ratio hardly seemed skewed. But for an L.A. native who’d previously worked only in Hollywood — an industry where to be a goy bordered on the eccentric, if not the decidedly disadvantageous; where colleagues kvelled over a writer’s new script; admonished difficult directors to "act like a mensch," and doled out judgments worthy of an elder Jewish mother atop Mount Sinai — ("Would it kill him just once to put a lunch on his expense account? Oy gevalt, that one’s a schnorrer") — I felt like a complete outcast in my new environment.

Experience seemed to bear this out. My second day at the startup, I attended the company-wide staff meeting which, strangely, consisted of going around the room and sharing "your most embarrassing story" (most had something to do with wrap-around skirts falling off at church); and, like a sorority pep rally, applauding ourselves for how great we were.

Yet the editorial meeting I called the next day turned out to be not another love-fest, but the most frustrating meeting I’d ever run — and this includes the time I volunteered to lead a group of troubled teens in prison. After a failed attempt at witty introductory remarks (my Sarah Silverman routine bombed), I handed out production schedules and deadlines, which were met with blank stares and dead silence. The only noise in the room came from a dropped metal hair clip that a Chanel "Face," a preppy producer named Slick, was using to braid her colleague Shannon’s flaxen hair. Hmm.

Not sure what to make of this inauspicious reception, I decided to check in with the CEO (think: Britney Spears with crow’s feet) who didn’t like to get "bogged down with details."

I gave her the broad strokes: the Face of Horoscopes didn’t "believe in astrology"; the Face of Fashion, who drove a Porsche, kept forgetting that teen girls shop at The Gap, not Gucci; the Face of Wellness, an earnest Martha Stewart-like ophthalmologist, was interested exclusively in sharing recipes (when I suggested that her content could be a bit more "fresh," she thought I was asking her to post a salad recipe); the Face of Beauty used the word "luscious" so incessantly (luscious lipstick, luscious liner, luscious lids) that when I did a search for "luscious" and left "replace with" blank, her word count shot down by 30; and the Face of Guys, a 20-year-old Backstreet Boys doppelgänger, called me "unreasonable," because I wouldn’t let him wax poetic about his favorite magazine, Maxim, on a site providing "insight" and "inspiration" to teen girls. And, I added, we’d just launched with virtually no sponsors, users, or a feasible business plan.

Something had to change.

Apparently, our CEO also needed a change. She announced that, in order to prevent burn-out, she and Molly, our co-founder, would chill out on a beach in Hawaii.

With our bosses MIA, it became increasingly difficult to separate out the world of our teen audience from the world of our business. Two cliques formed, composed of those who tried to keep the company on track ("the studious kids" — the two Jews, me and Lisa) and those who just wanted to have fun ("the popular kids" — almost everyone else). I felt like I was trapped in "Heathers" meets "Lord of the Flies." Soon I began having flashbacks to high school, and if there’s one thing I gleaned from that adolescent political arena, it was that if you wanted to exert any power at all, you had to belong to the popular crowd. So what if at my West Los Angeles high school, the Jews were the popular crowd?

I called an emergency meeting with our Face of Hair.

The effects of the flat iron, a hair-straightening device that allowed me to look like a clone of my Kibu kin, were instantaneous. My colleagues complimented me on my fashionable new locks. They asked me to join them for lunch. They confided their imaginary cellulite problems.

Now that I was one of them, they showed up for most of their story meetings, appreciated my suggestions and turned in their work on time. Being overtly Jewish, I concluded, had been my liability.

Or so I thought.

Two months later, Lisa and I were "unhired" from the company because of religious differences — not Jewish vs. Christian, but heathen vs. believer. We stood out in the startup culture not because of our ethnicity, but because we declined to bathe in the sickly sweet baptismal keg of Kool-Aid. We refused to become embroiled in a Jonestown-style New Economy mass delusion that led to no one questioning the viability of their business models. So I wasn’t surprised when, by autumn, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kibu "a poster child for mismanaged Web companies" and announced that the doomed dot-bomb was shutting its doors.

Sipping my Kibu-branded "chai energy tea," I stared at the article and thought about all I’d learned from my startup experience: trust your instincts, not the hype; create the product before you launch; bigger isn’t necessarily better; work for people who have a clear vision; if you jump on a bus, make sure you know its destination; and finally, becoming a shiksa to fit into a workplace is as idiotic as joining a dot-com in the first place.

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.

Malibu Music Man With Latin Groove


This High Holy Day season, the congregation at Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue has something to sing about, to the lively and devoted Marcelo Gindlin. Affectionately dubbed "Cantor Marcelo," the Argentine Pied Piper came to the shul two years ago and created a brand-new music program. This soulful and spiritual 33-year-old is motivated by his love for music and his belief in its ability to heal.

"Preparing for the High Holy Days," Gindlin says, "my mind is drawn to the idea that we live in a fragile world. My mission as a cantor is to fortify our world and to create a musical environment that encompasses our people and our prayers." He compares the comfort of music to the way a tallit "warmly wraps our shoulders and safeguards our souls."

Gindlin graduated from the Latin American Rabbinical Seminar in his native Buenos Aires. There he worked as a cantor in eight different communities where he also wrote and directed musicals for his congregations. In addition, Gindlin worked as a music therapist, helping patients with various ailments to heal by playing instruments with them. After several successful years in Argentina, the cantor was ready for a change. While the country’s economy wasn’t as turbulent as it is currently, Gindlin felt that the political situation "wasn’t respectful of the people." He was thrilled at the prospect of working as a cantor for one community full time, a situation that doesn’t really exist in Argentina.

When Gindlin took the position at the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center, he was intent on helping his new congregants find themselves through music. With his powerful voice, songwriting skills and ability to play guitar, keyboards — "and maracas!" as he emphasized with a laugh — Gindlin worked with the preschool classes, teaching them Jewish songs. It wasn’t long before he decided that the community was ready for a music project.

Over the past year, Gindlin worked with members of the synagogue, teachers and preschoolers to produce "Tot Shabbat With Cantor Marcelo," which consists of kids’ songs about the Sabbath. Adults and children who liked to sing provided the vocals. Fellow songwriters helped write music and lyrics and artists helped create the album cover. The cantor worked long hours with the volunteers from the shul, often using his days off to meet with them. "This is a community that needs these kind of projects," Gindlin says. "My role is to encourage people to enjoy Judaism through singing and get them to feel excited. [Writing musicals] is what I did in Argentina. Here it is a big challenge, because people aren’t used to it."

Drawing from his roots, the cantor used a lot of South American influences in the album. "I wanted to incorporate a Latin style," he explains, "Latin music is much more alive and I believe the way that children pray is through dancing and singing." Many of the songs use repetition and break down the words into syllables, making them easy to say and remember. Besides the catchy lyrics and the danceability factor, it’s Gindlin’s vivacious personality that comes through. To supplement the songs in live performances, he and the volunteers developed a play to tie the "Tot Shabbat" songs together. While the album will eventually be available nationally, Gindlin and his cast continue to perform the show as a workshop in several communities around Southern California.

Besides leading services, directing the choir and getting the community fired up about music, Gindlin is also a multilevel teacher at the synagogue. He teaches music to the preschool children, helps adults learn Hebrew and practices the "Tefillah" with the children at the Hebrew school. This fall, he will direct the b’nai mitzvah program.

While the cantor is quite taken with his new surroundings in the United States, he is concerned about the friends and family he left in Argentina. He hopes to organize a music concert to raise money for the communities where he once worked.

Even though he’s accomplished so much in his short time in the States, Gindlin still has a few tricks up his sleeve. He is currently developing a program for kids with special needs called, "To Be Different," and expects to create more inspiring musical projects down the line. As he reflects on the upcoming holidays, Gindlin’s strong belief in the power of music continues to be a driving force and a source of optimism. "We can do so many things in this New Year, and renewing our spirit can make it so," he insists. With the power of music as his foundation, Gindlin suggests that to experience this reawakening, Jews must "tap into their inner melodies."

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 .

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.

Open France’s Eyes to Hatred


Although Shelley Ventura-Cohen had been to France several times before as a tourist with an interest in French culture,this visit — on an American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) mission to counteract French anti-Semitism — was unique.

"The difference was, that this time I went with passion," said the Los Angeles psychologist. "And I went with a spirit of connection to the French and Belgian Jews. Anti-Semitism in France affects Jews everywhere, and I went to France knowing that there had to be a determined and fitting anger about it, and a profound need for dialogue with the French government."

Ventura-Cohen was one of nine participants on the July mission, which also included L.A. residents Gary Ratner, executive director of the AJCongress Pacific Southwest Region; David Suissa of Suissa-Miller advertising agency, and founder and editor of OLAM magazine, and Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, AJCongress Pacific Southwest Region president. The mission was organized against a backdrop of 1,000 anti-Semitic incidents that had occurred in France since the start of the Al-Aksa intifada — incidents that appear as a hideous epilogue to a history that has sustained both Dreyfus and Vichy. The mission comprised of meetings with French government ministers, officials at the European Union, leaders of the French Jewish community, and French Jewish intellectual groups. Besides offering solidarity and support to French Jews, the aim of the mission was to probe and prod politicians, who for the past year had treated the problem of the growing number of anti-Semitic battery, harassment and vandalism incidents evasively, failing to take measures that acknowledged the seriousness of the problem.

"One had to call attention to the fact that the French government tolerated the ridiculousness of anti-Semitism," said AJCongress President Jack Rosen, who headed the mission.

The mission arrived in France at the dawn of a new government, and many of the politicians the group met with, while not willing to admit that anti-Semitism was a problem in France, were eager to cast blame on their predecessors for their laxity in dealing with anti-Semitic crimes. Both the minister of justice and the interior minister assured the group that there had been a decrease in incidents since the new government was elected, and that from now on, tougher sentences would be handed out. They all tried to dissuade the group of the notion that anti-Semitism was endemic to French society — they explained it instead as a problem that was isolated among the millions of disaffected Arab migrants from places like Algeria and Tunisia.

Others were more circumspect about the situation, and urged the AJCongress to be vigilant about taking action. "Don’t be lured by smiles and other pleasing talk from the government," warned Michel Gurfinkel, the editor of a French weekly. "You don’t have SS men walking down the street, but the situation is very bad. The country has gone over the border."

Pierre Lellouche, a Harvard-educated French parliamentarian, explained that what was happening in France was that a new kind of anti-Semitism was arising, one that was championed by the extreme left. "You have the media in Europe and in France beating down on Israel as a butcher every day, and a lot of the good-faith guys are absolutely convinced that the bad guys are the Jews and the good guys are the Arabs, which means that you can be openly anti-Semitic in France today, in the name of anti-racism," he said.

Lellouche is championing a bill that will make a crime out of anti-Semitic or racist intentions on acts of aggression or battery either on persons or property

The mission encountered hostility on the trip to the European Union in Brussels, which began with a meeting with officials from the office of Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations, who acknowledged that they agreed with Cherie Blair’s comments about the desperation of suicide bombers — they thought suicide bombings had achieved a lot for the Palestinians politically, and tried to convince the group that long tourist lines outside of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam surely proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Europe today. After a day of meetings at the European Union, which included friendlier dialogue with Javier Solana and other policy chiefs (they even served a kosher lunch) — the group got back on the bus to find that someone had placed a Palestinian flag there, a sign that the group’s presence was resented.

Despite the current situation, Jews have thrived over the years in France, which makes the problem of anti-Semitism all the more urgent to combat.

"There are 600,000 Jews in France today," said Stephane Friedfeld, who was the group’s French guide, "and as a Jew, I can say that there are problems, but I am proud to be Jewish in France today."

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."

No Shvitz


Hot on the heels of the Jewish Community Center closings, YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles announced in late June that it would close the saunas and steam rooms in seven of the eight centers that still had them. (The Hollywood-Wilshire Y will leave its sauna open on a 90-day trial basis with increased monitoring.) The announcement sparked anger and protest from YMCA members who have used the facilities for years.

To find out more about the sauna closings, and the relevance of YMCAs to the Jewish community, The Jewish Journal turned to a man who knows both quite well. Larry Rosen is the president and CEO of YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Rosen, who grew up a member of Temple Israel of Westchester, has spent 32 of his 54 ("and three-fourths") years as a YMCA professional. Los Angeles YMCA bylaws state its goals are: "To develop and improve the spiritual, social, mental and physical life of youth and adults in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus…." But Rosen points out another part of his organization’s self-definition: "….Association of persons of all ages, ethnic groups and religious affiliations who are united in a common effort to put Judeo-Christian principles into practice…."

Jewish Journal: The YMCA Web site says the values of the YMCA are Judeo-Christian.

Larry Rosen: And that’s true. In fact the Los Angeles YMCA mission is putting Judeo-Christian principles into practice. All but the most strictly religious Jews don’t seem to have a problem with it. The truth is that since the end of World War II, Jews have gone to YMCAs in huge numbers, in every urban area in America, including Los Angeles. It is not either uncommon or unusual in any respect for Jews to be active in both membership, as you can now see on the staff, and in the volunteer leadership of YMCAs. The other thing is that YMCAs because they are so much larger and more widespread an institution than the JCCs, have always had a larger array of programming than the JCCs are able to produce.

JJ: You said that it’s not uncommon for Jews to be members and leaders of YMCA. Why do you think that is?

LR: There’s a big reason. It’s ecumenical, it’s not spiritually neutral, neither is it spiritually doctrinaire. There’s nothing about it that is alien to the Jewish experience. That’s why I think it is a very comfortable environment for Jews.

JJ: So how does the programming of a YMCA differ from that at a JCC?

LR: Between the volume and the geographical distribution and the kind of pervasive nature in American life, the Y has been more available to more people than JCCs have ever been able to be. That’s not a statement about quality, it’s an acknowledgment. Much of what people have gotten from JCCs they can’t get from YMCAs. What they can’t get is the concentration on Jewish life. That’s the thing that’s missing and that’s what I consider the great loss if the JCCs disappear. But in terms of health and fitness, child care and all these other things that people need in an urban environment, they can get that from YMCAs.

JJ: Why are the saunas and steam rooms closing?

LR: We are concerned that we’ve proven ourselves unable to control the inappropriate use of these facilities. People using them inappropriately put themselves at risk. So here’s the deal, take the alter-kacker going for a shvitz. The typical pattern has been that somebody either equates a good shvitz with a good workout, which is not true. A good shvitz is a good way to dehydrate yourself, raise your heart rate, your blood pressure and put yourself at risk for the other hazards of dehydration. So a good shvitz is not a good workout, but there’s a lot of mythology, or culture. It resists education, that’s one of the things we’re concerned about. Telling that gentleman that he’s putting himself at risk when he feels fine, is not a conversation that we can have successfully, and have not had successfully for decades. The other time that is a genuine risk, and a common one, is use immediately after exercise. A pattern of, say, "after a good workout, big swim, 30 minutes on a treadmill," fill in the blank, "I like to go have a steam, or a sauna." It’s the worst time in the world to do that in terms of putting yourself at risk. Over the decades, we haven’t found any successful way to monitor, control or prevent these risks that members incur by inappropriate use. That’s why we’ve closed them. Now those concerns remain and we are going to study them further.

JJ: So how do you react to the protesters who say you’re shutting them for financial or other reasons?

LR: This is not a popular decision; it isn’t a decision for popular vote. We know that these are popular. This is a health and safety decision. So on one hand, people can protest until the next ice age, but if it is a genuine health and safety issue, which is the subject of our continuing exploration, then I don’t care how many people vote for it. So protests don’t help. They don’t mean anything in this decision. The only thing that would help would be evidence of methods we can use to prevent people from putting themselves in harm’s way. That’s the only thing we care about.

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."

Passover Rescue


Five months ago, Beatrice Ballageure was struggling to make ends meet as a single, 47-year-old Jewish woman living in the capital city of an economically depressed Argentina. She had lost her job several months earlier, but she owned her own apartment and had enough money in the bank to afford basic expenses. She had friends with jobs, and she knew she could rely on her family if real trouble ever came.

Then the bottom fell out of Argentina’s economy.

The president announced that the country was defaulting on its public debt, the peso was devalued and immediately went into a free-fall, unemployment surged to 22 percent and the government froze all bank accounts, cutting off millions of Argentines from their life savings. In addition, food riots broke out, and the president, along with three of his successors, resigned.

Suddenly, Ballageure was out of options.

Last week, Ballageure found herself in a food line at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, waiting for a handout of basic foodstuffs for Passover. Over the course of three months, her sister had moved to Israel, all but two of her friends had lost their jobs and the few pesos she had left in the bank had been frozen and was rapidly shrinking in value. On top of that, she needed food to eat for the holiday.

“I was middle class,” said Ballageure, clutching her handbag in line at the Asociacian Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), Buenos Aires’ central Jewish community facility. “Now I have no class.”

Ballageure is just one of the tens of thousands of Jews — and millions of Argentines — who find themselves out of money and out of luck this Passover season. For Argentina’s once-wealthy Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone.

Unaccustomed to their sudden impoverishment, many of Argentina’s new Jewish poor are too ashamed to ask for help. However, their community leaders are sounding the alarm, and U.S. Jews have begun to respond.

Earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, and Dr. Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), led a group of a dozen rabbis on a two-day mission to Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine Jewish leaders and figure out how to distribute approximately $100,000 in relief aid for the purchase of Passover food.

The funds were raised for Argentina’s Jews by nearly 70 synagogues across North America, including several in the Los Angeles area: Sinai Temple, Temple Kol Tikvah, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Kehillat Israel, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom and Congregation Kol Ami.

“It’s like [Manhattan’s] Upper East Side suddenly went belly-up,” said Schneier of the plight of Argentine Jewry. “They still have their nice clothes and expensive homes, but they suddenly have no money to buy food and can’t make their monthly maintenance payments. It’s unbelievable.”

Bypassing the usual Jewish communal charity mechanisms, the group delivered the money directly to 32 synagogues in Argentina, many of which have had to open soup kitchens to feed their members. The checks were cashed at exchange centers rather than banks — where withdrawals are severely restricted — and the Argentine synagogues used the cash to buy food that was distributed to congregants and other needy Jews before the holiday.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs, spiritual leader of Woodland Hills’ Temple Kol Tikvah, took part in the mission, and he brought checks from the seven Southern California synagogues.

The swift fundraising operation was a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of maot hitim, giving food to the poor for Passover, said Schneier, the group’s president. “Usually we give maot hitim before Passover to poor Jews in New York,” said Schneier, who is the rabbi of Hampton Synagogue in Long Island, N.Y. “But when we focused this year on the issue of maot hitim, we knew there was a community of deep financial need in Argentina.”

Last month, the United Jewish Communities pledged $40 million in emergency aid for Argentine relief, $35 million of which is being allocated to aid Argentine aliyah and absorption in Israel, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, and $5 million of which is being spent locally in Argentina, under the aegis of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Commission of the Latin-American Jewish Congress, said Argentina’s woes pose nothing less than a problem of “physical survival” for the country’s Jews. “This community has no [financial] resources,” he said in Buenos Aires. “There are 50,000 poor Jews in Argentina, and only 20,000 have the protection of the Jewish community. Today we have a problem of the survival of Jews and of the Argentine Jewish community.”

“We came so that when we say in our homes on Passover behind closed doors, ‘Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat,’ we will not be lying,” said Singer, explaining the timing of the rabbis’ trip.

“It’s only a beginning,” Singer said. “We shall return.”

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.

Saying Uncle?


Let’s not kid ourselves: Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) has been hurting for a long, long time. If some part of the system of centers and services are to be saved, as hundreds if not thousands of Jews are now trying to do, it will take surgery, not first aid.

The current crisis may be the most severe, but it didn’t arrive without warning: there have been years of public struggle over center programs and policies, a general dilapidation of many center properties, and a steady drop in overall center membership.

Now, in what only seems like a flash, the JCCGLA’s largest single benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has refused to give the flailing system a penny more to keep it afloat beyond June. What’s more, it wants JCCGLA to sell its properties in order to pay off a commercial bank loan The Federation is guaranteeing. Five of seven centers face complete closure and likely sale.

The Federation is not a bank, its leaders point out, the JCCGLA has no money, and at the end of the day, this is a money problem.

Or is it?

I’m realistic enough to know that behind every visionary plan there’s the problem of money, and I’m idealistic enough to believe that behind most money problems there’s a crisis of vision.

There is certainly enough money in this town to solve the JCC’s money woes. Depending on who tells more of the financial truth better (more on that later), the sums are not huge. Organizers out to save the Westside JCC say their deficit is $200,000. Even if they’re wrong by a factor of five, you’re still in the ballpark of affordable philanthropy. Last Sunday morning, a handful of organizers enabled 12,000 people committed to helping victims of Palestinian terror raise $500,000 — before lunch.

If money is not the problem, vision is. Those who believe in the utter necessity of a JCC system to attract future generations of committed Jews of all beliefs, of all backgrounds, of all income levels into Jewish life, have simply not been successful at making that case to people with money.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the JCCs epitomized the aggregation of both vision and money. The membership rolls of the JCC in its heyday boasted the movers and shakers of L.A. Jewry. Lou Warschaw was JCC president in the 1950s when the organization decided it was time to close the Michigan Soto Center, as Jews had mostly moved west. That decision also caused an uproar, but Warschaw and his board did it as they bolstered the system elsewhere. But let the system collapse? They built it. They believed in it.

Most communities still do. They depend on JCCs to reach out to Jews who are on the margins of Jewish life. In New York City, New Orleans, Orange County, Newton, Mass., Toronto and Silicon Valley, communities have spent millions on saving and revitalizing their JCCs.

JCCs in these cities face the same pressures those in Los Angeles do: limited resources, competition from synagogues and health clubs, changing demographics, aging structures. Their leaders saw these obstacles as challenges, not excuses. The same week the JCCGLA here announced its closures, The Forward newspaper in New York reported that the city’s preeminent JCC, the 92nd Street Y, had entered into an arrangement to offer salon and aromatherapy services, in order to attract a new generation of upscale Jews. The idea is to change with the times, not just give up.

As intermarriage and assimilation become greater challenges to creating a strong community, JCCs are ideally suited to draw in families who would never think — or who could never afford — to join a synagogue. The Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC serves an area thirsty for Jewish life: Temple Israel of Hollywood has grown 20 percent over the past five years. The Westside JCC still sits in the midst of numerous Jewish neighborhoods — The Federation paid for a demography study that proves it. Bay Cities, North Valley and West Valley JCCs also serve eager, diverse Jewish populations. If certain JCCs refuse to change and adapt to meet current Jewish needs, goodbye and good luck. But are we ready to let the whole system go down with no replacement?

Traditionally, JCCs have funneled their users into greater Jewish involvement. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders need to weigh in on behalf of one of the few Jewish institutions in this town that can reach across boundaries and bring our disparate Jewish communities together.

So why are so many people so willing to write this crisis off? For one, those responsible for the JCC system screwed up big time. Over the years, the level of mismanagement, miscommunication and neglect would be laughable if the results were not so bitter for thousands of JCC users and laid-off employees. The Journal is not ready to point fingers (yet), but activists and potential donors would be wise to demand a full accounting of what went wrong, and a concrete plan to prevent such a thing from happening again.

In this regard, it is not just the reputation of the JCCs at stake.

JCCs must understand that they have been, as Federation President John Fishel said at one public meeting, “hemorrhaging money.” But Federation board members must understand that thousands of JCC supporters are still turning to The Federation for answers and guidance. It is commendable that Fishel met publicly with JCC parents and supporters across the city to present his board’s views of the crisis. In doing so he weathered a verbal barrage that makes “The McLaughlin Group” look like “Blue’s Clues.”

But people still want to know more: If the mission of the centers was worth supporting with millions of donor dollars over the years, how can it suddenly be worth nothing?

How did The Federation, which oversaw JCCGLA books and demanded the JCCGLA use The Federation’s own outside auditor, plead ignorance of the extent of JCCGLA mismanagement?

Why do Federation leaders keep changing the degree of their own fundraising problems? Fishel told an audience at the West Valley JCC that a crisis in Federation’s own ability to raise funds was apparent in January. But in May, William S. Bernstein, Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, told the Journal that fundraising is “off to its best start in seven years.” If we’re all in this together — and we are — we all need to work off the same numbers.

Whether Los Angeles’ own JCCs are in the throes of death or painful rebirth depends on how honestly, and how creatively, this community faces these very difficult issues. We believe outgoing Federation President CEO Todd Morgan when he says that the concern across the community is real, and a search for solutions is at hand. It certainly goes against the grain to destroy the fruits of 50 years of Jewish communal vision without putting forward one of our own. In his interview last May with The Journal, Bernstein went on to say, “The accumulated wealth of the community … still leaves contributors with significant flexibility in terms of how they wish to spend their charitable dollars.”

So which is it? Are we short on cash, or bereft of vision?

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
Gary@jewishweek.org

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