Holy to half of humanity – the polluted water of the Jordan River

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

When US Naval officer William F. Lynch became the first Westerner to sail the lower Jordan River in 1847, he traversed the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan to the Dead Sea over current so strong that, according to his journal, he required four metal boats, one of which was smashed on the rocks of the powerful rapids. Lynch goes on the recount the broad and forceful flow of the then-mighty river.

Today, though, the Jordan is barley a trickle – just four meters wide and two meters deep in some parts. Its color is an opaque brown; and despite being holy to the world’s three major religions, a mouthful of the river’s water would most likely lead to a variety of rather unpleasant effects.

Throughout the years, successive governments in Syria, Israel and Jordan have redistributed the water supply for various reasons. Sewage has been leaked or directly pumped into the river; while a variety of overflows from agricultural and fish farming add to the flavor. A variety of plants and wildlife, including willow trees and otters, which had formerly followed the banks of the meandering river can no longer be found along its shores.

If you had told William F. Lynch that a rejuvenation program costing billions of American dollars would be required to restore an adequate flow to the Jordan River within a mere 150-years, it is a fair guess to say it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

EcoPeace, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Friends of the Earth Middle East, sees the restoration of the Jordan River as a problem for all people of the region: especially Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Not only is the degradation of the water supply harmful to the environment and the communities which rely on it, but it is wasting the huge financial potential of the valley which could improve the living standards of many.

The successful transformation of the river would lead to huge economic and environmental advantages, argues Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s director in Israel. He told The Media Line that EcoPeace believes that if its proposals were enacted, the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Jordan Valley would increase to as many as ten million each year –a tenfold increase that Bromberg called “a game changer” for the region’s economy.

EcoPeace has put together a series of policy proposals which it has termed the “Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley.” A variety of measures ranging from pollution control, water resourcing and ecological management; to the development of tourism and cultural heritage sites make up the organization’s wish list, forecasted up to the year 2050.

The benefits would be felt in agriculture and industry as well as in the tourism and environmental sectors, Bromberg said, while explaining that changes in perception would need to be made. “It requires that we treat the river differently – as a livelihood source, as the healthy economic engine, instead of seeing the river as the sewage canal and as the dumping ground.”

“We feel that the Jordan Valley is part of the common cultural heritage of this region and it is being shared between three parties here: the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, said, keen to show that the EU was a partner to the Master Plan.

The benefits of cooperation and of sustainable development when living in a well-populated compact area were clear to see, the ambassador said, suggesting that this is true in Europe and in the Jordan Valley as well. Bottom-up cooperation, as evidenced by EcoPeace’s past work, could lead to peace building, Faaborg-Andersen said, adding, “We hope that the (local) governments will take inspiration from this.”

Europe’s economic and political integration following the Second World War, and the decades of relative peace which have followed since are a model to follow according to Bromberg, who argued that just as steel and coal, the continent’s two most important resources, were were able to form ties in Europe, water and energy could do the same in the Jordan Valley.

Yet, inevitably, as with everything in the region, the discussion devolves into a political one. “Water is not a problem, it is not a zero sum game. Some people, especially in Israel, have a surplus of water,” Dr. Nader Al-Khateeb, EcoPeace’s director in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. Politics, and not a shortage of water, was causing the pollution and lack of economic resourcing seen in the area, he charged. According to Al-Khateeb, it is for this reason that the NGO EcoPeace weighs in on politically-charged issues and debates and is “very clear about our political position, [supporting] a two state solution, within the international (consensus) on recognized 1967 borders.”

A stance on politics is not unnatural Bromberg said, “Our name is EcoPeace: ecological peace – we are an environmental organization at heart but we are also a peace organization.” In order to move forward on the environmental agenda, Bromberg argued, such issues have to be touched on and therefore EcoPeace advocates for a two-state solution.

“We don’t think that this is particularly radical – our Israeli Prime Minister says he’s in favor of a two-state solution,” Bromberg pointed out.

But he did acknowledge that EcoPeace is not without its detractors. Activists in the Palestinian Territories and in Jordan have received threatening phone calls and activities by the organizations have been disrupted by individuals aligned with the “anti-normalization campaign”[Editor’s Note: a movement in the Arab world opposing all efforts to “normalize” relations with the state of Israel or institutions located inside the Jewish state.] In Israel, EcoPeace has found itself labelled as traitorous.

Extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hostile to EcoPeace’s work, Bromberg said. Such individuals believe that any cooperation with the other side prior to a resolution of the conflict is an attempt to maintain the status quo or is collaboration against your own people, the Israeli Director said. “We think that has no analytical or practical basis what so ever,” Bromberg concluded.

A pro-Israel think tanks maintains that water has increasingly become a politicized weapon in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is being used as a tool to delegitimize the Jewish state. NGO Monitor, an organization which aims to expose anti-Israeli sentiment among many of the groups working in Israel, listed a number of NGOs it felt were using water as a political tool. EcoPeace was not among the list, reinforcing its assertion that “it focuses on the environment and not on the conflict.”

In the meantime, while the politics is debated, the Jordan continues to trickle by and thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized in its sickly beige water each year. If environmentalists are able to get their way, within a few decades the water such visitors bathe in might even be clean.

The Amazon’s magical mystery rabbi

Details of Rabbi Shalom Emmanuel Muyal’s mission and death in the Amazon remain obscure, but that’s nothing compared to the mystery of his afterlife.

Local Catholics have named him the Santo Judeu Milagreiro de Manaus, or the Holy Jewish Miracle Worker of Manaus. His tomb receives regular visits from Christians who attribute magic to his spirit.

Nobody can say for sure why Muyal set off from Morocco to the Brazilian Amazon in 1908. The most likely story seems to be that he was sent by Morocco’s chief rabbi to touch base with the rain forest faithful.

Like all travelers back then, Muyal began his Amazon expedition near the mouth of the river in the city of Belm, and worked his way upriver. By 1910, he had traversed the nearly 1,000 miles to Manaus, then a city of 50,000.

In his book, “Two Years Among the Indians,” German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, who passed through the town a few years before the rabbi, warned of a “dangerous ‘Manaus fever,’ that nearly every year kills a quantity of foreigners.” Muyal caught something, probably yellow fever, and died on March 10, 1910.

Manaus didn’t have a Jewish cemetery until the 1920s, so Muyal was buried with non-Jews in the Sâo Joâo Batista Municipal Cemetery. In keeping with tradition, members of the Jewish community built a small wall around the tomb. The headstone featured inscriptions in Hebrew and Portuguese.

By all accounts, nobody really wanted to hang out at the rabbi’s deathbed — nobody except a woman named Cota Israel, who faithfully attended to Muyal until he died.

After the rabbi’s death, Israel developed a knack for helping people iron out kinks — muscle pulls, twisted ankles and knees, fractures and back problems.

“Just a common woman, she began to treat people as would a physical therapist today,” said Isaac Dahan, a doctor who also serves as the Jewish community’s prayer leader in Manaus.

There’s no record of when Muyal himself was first credited with miracles, but members of Manaus’ Jewish community born in the 1930s remember hearing stories about him when they were children.

Dozens of beneficiaries have attached plaques to the rabbi’s tomb. Most simply announce a “graãa alcanãada,” or miracle performed, without specifying the details. Most are not dated, but the oldest with a date is from July 18, 1975.

A few years later, around 1980, a member of Israel’s Parliament named Eliahu Moyal learned from a friend of the late miracle-performing rabbi in Brazil. Muyal determined that the man had been his long-lost uncle.

He sent a letter to the Amazonas Israelite Committee in Manaus asking whether the remains could be sent to Israel for reburial. After some soul searching, community leaders regretfully denied Moyal’s request.

“How could we? He’d become a saint,” Dahan said. “We can’t even move him to our cemetery nearby.”

Christians continued their pilgrimages to the tomb, lighting candles and leaving offerings.

Many members of the 200-family Manaus community find the phenomenon a bit curious, but they don’t begrudge the Catholics their Holy Rabbi.

“Nobody can disrespect the beliefs of the city where we live,” Dahan said.

— Bill Hinchberger, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Where Have All the Jews Gone?

It was one of those moments that capture a nation’s interest. The Powerball Lottery reached $314.9 million and one person, Andrew J. Whittaker from Hurricane, W.Va., was the lucky winner. As the media descended upon him and his wife, Jewell, asking them about everything under the sun, one question caught my attention. Jewell was asked what she wanted do with her newfound wealth. Without hesitation she responded, "I want to visit the Holy Land and walk the streets where Jesus walked."

Fascinating. She didn’t mention any concern about traveling to Israel during these trying times; rather, she simply expressed her strong desire to fulfill this lifelong dream.

Recently, a friend told me that his brother and sister-in-law flew from Newark, N.J., to Israel. The plane was filled with Christian church groups traveling on a Holy Land pilgrimage. When his sister-in-law got up to walk in the aisles, a fellow passenger stopped and inquired, "And what church are you from?"

When she said that she was Jewish, the lady remarked, "I think you are the only Jew on this flight."

Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel.

Take a look at the ads for luxury Passover destinations in any of the Anglo Jewish papers. You will find ads for Palm Springs, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Miami, Orlando, Hawaii, San Juan, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Aruba, Barcelona, Budapest, Cannes, Italy and the Swiss Alps. Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel. That has to change; we have to demonstrate that American Jews belong in Israel this Passover.

On Monday, Dec. 23, 2002, the West Coast Union of Orthodox Congregations and the Israel Ministry of Tourism honored my synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, for organizing three solidarity missions to Israel during 2002. We went in January, July and November. I was informed of this honor while leading the November mission. I was thrilled with the announcement but asked why we were chosen. I was told that no other synagogue in the city organized so many missions in one year. On the one hand, I was proud; on the other, I felt despair that others weren’t going.

Why haven’t many other congregations organized even one mission to Israel during this period? Why doesn’t our own Jewish Federation organize more solidarity missions throughout the year? Our synagogue participated in a communitywide mission that The Federation ran almost two years ago, but isn’t it time now for many more missions to occur? Is there anything more crucial than helping the State of Israel overcome her feeling of abandonment during these difficult days?

On each mission we found the country empty of tourists. On one trip a member of our group needed to change his room in the hotel. When he inquired about the availability of another room, the clerk laughed and said, "How many rooms would you like? You are the only ones in the hotel."

Jerusalem at night, once a haven of tourists, is too silent to bear. Businesses, once dependent upon the Jewish tourist trade, are closing. On each of our trips, Israelis stopped us in the streets and thanked us for visiting. They told us, "When you return to the United States, tell others to come. This is their home. Why aren’t they here with us?"

On a recent speaking tour of Los Angeles, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, recounted the following: During the 1948 War of Independence, the great rabbinic figure of Bnei Brak, the Hazon Ish, instructed that no Jews should leave the country, even if they are fearful, since this would harm the nation’s stability. A Jew, the Hazon Ish declared, is morally and halachically obligated to strengthen Israel and may never do anything that may harm her. Relying on this observation, Riskin told his audience that now it is our turn to strengthen Israel. There is no more important act, the rabbi said, than to come to Israel and be with her people.

After delivering one of my many impassioned sermons on this topic, a member of my congregation asked me why I am so driven by this issue. I told him that two factors have influenced my thinking. The first occurred while I was still a boy. It was the Six-Day War. Right before the war began, and as the drums of battle were beginning to be heard, a cartoon appeared in the Israeli press. American Jews in Israel at that time quickly packed and left for safer havens, and the cartoon sarcastically depicted this state of affairs with the caption, "Will the last American Jew to leave Lod Airport please turn off the lights." After seeing that cartoon, I became convinced that no American Jew should ever allow such a situation to occur again.

The second reason is history itself. All students of the Holocaust know that American Jewry did not do enough on behalf of their suffering brethren in Europe. We remained too complacent during those terrible times. When the history of this period will be written I don’t want the same indictment to be lodged against our community. We must literally stand shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli brethren in their time of need.

So, where have all the Jews gone? The answer must be — on a solidarity mission to Israel.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

United We Stand

Nearly twice as many residents as last year intend to participate in the We Stand With Israel trip next month, Federation Executive Director Bunnie Mauldin said,adding that “despite what’s going on politically or war with Iraq on the horizon, our aim is the same.”

The trip is an opportunity for people to show their support.

“There is no more important time for American Jews to visit Israel and let the people of Israel know they are not alone. This is the time to go,” she said.

Lou Weiss, the Federation’s president, thinks the group should be making an annual Israel pilgrimage.

Mauldin is optimistic a 40-seat bus will be filled to capacity for the 10-day trip, compared to 22 who went last December.

During the first leg of this $2,530-per-person trip, participants will hear firsthand analysis of the Middle East situation in briefings by top-level officials. The mission will also tour the Golan, Tiberias and Safed in northern Israel and visit the Federation’s sister cities, Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon.

For more information, call (714) 755-5555, ext. 231, or e-mail bunnie@jfoc.org.

Amsterdam’s Split Personality

Anne Frank’s house, a fabulous 17th century synagogue and an excellent heritage museum give Amsterdam special appeal for Jewish visitors. But they are all sites whose very existence reflect the city’s incurable split personality, making for a sightseeing experience that constantly provides food for thought.

Jews were victims of Amsterdam’s schizophrenia from the mid-1600s, when they first came from Portugal disguised as Catholic converts, to the mid-1900s, when the horror of the Holocaust provoked serious atonement for a level of duplicity that helped the community to virtual annihilation 60 years ago.

At first, Jews were tolerated yet barred from all but the brokers’, printers’ and surgeons’ guilds and were later emancipated by Napoleon, only to be left to a terrible fate under the Nazis. It is surprising, given how little help was given to the few wartime survivors, that a modern community exists at all.

Yet, this beautiful city has done more than any in Europe to acknowledge the contribution of its late, great Jewish citizens.

Amsterdam has much else to recommend it — beautiful canals, buzzy cafes, world-class art and architecture and eclectic shopping — plus discomfiting contrasts that give it a certain edge. Elegant canalside neighborhoods sit only minutes away from a raucous Red Light District, while a rip-off taxi-driver element preys on tourists who shun the fast and frequent trams.

However, for those sufficiently fit to get around by tram, boat and on foot, dodging the bicycles, Amsterdam makes for a rewarding weekend. The city looks utterly unique, thanks to its legacy of distinctive 17th century buildings, and also feels unique, thanks to the cultural sea change of the hippie era in which it remains charmingly stuck. There’s a hallucination round every corner, whether it’s a five-story gingerbread house leaning at a precarious 20-degree angle into the canal, or a rescue barge fishing drowned bicycles out of the water by the truckload — not to mention those ladies of the night in their neon-framed windows.

Anne Frank’s house, the saddest canalside mansion of all, is the first place of pilgrimage for virtually all cultural tourists. Despite the queues and the controversy (some feel it whitewashes wartime facts), it is impossible not to be moved by the sight of her bare room decorated with pictures from the cinema magazines smuggled in every week, not to mention the original diary pages in which she recorded every agony of her interrupted adolescence and longing for a future in which it would be OK to be Jewish.

Far less well-known than the diary, but an equally powerful testament of a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, are the 769 vivid comic-strip tableaus by Charlotte Salomon, who also died in the camps. Salomon was a Berliner, but her illustrated autobiography is a jewel in the crown of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, which attempts to explore all Jewish identity — as well as the sad tale of the Dutch experience — within a complex of 17th and 18th century shuls.

You don’t, however, need to enter a museum to trace the history of Amsterdam’s community, thanks to an excellent self-guided walking tour around the old Jewish quarter, whose most poignant site is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a music-hall grotesquely turned into a Jewish theater by the Nazis and shortly thereafter a collection point for Amsterdam’s Jews sent from bound for death in the camps.

Almost equally chilling to behold is the handsome canalside Jewish Council building, whose members so efficiently carried out the orders of their new Nazi masters in the vain hope of not making things worse. Like the Amsterdammers at large who went on strike to protest the occupation long after the event, they realized the truth too late. It is a wonder that the magnificent Portuguese synagogue completed in 1675 survived the war, unlike its community, and that it continues to open for services today without the benefit of electric light. one of the most breathtaking aspects of a Shabbat visit is to experiencing davening by candlelight, but a visit is possible at any time without special arrangement.

Across the road lies Waterlooplein, a big waterside market square once the main trading venue for Jewish peddlers barred from owning shops, now a Mecca of ’70s-style tat. Nearby — and thus perfectly placed for touring Amsterdam’s Jewish sites, as well as the canal belt, which is a living legacy to the city’s golden age — is the Hotel de l’Europe, one of Amsterdam’s three five-star deluxe hotels and by far the most conveniently situated. Worth the price for its luxury as well as location, it is just a couple of doors down from the city’s best cafe, Cafe de Jaren, a brilliant waterside rendezvous for anything from a late breakfast to a late drink. Less posh than the l’Europe, but very acceptable, is the Hotel Estherea, offering a canalside view of Amsterdam life. There is a Waterlooplein stop for the excellent Museum Boat that goes one step further than other canal cruises by linking all sites of interest, including Anne Frank’s House and the Jewish Museum, and permits a start-stop cruise as often as you want within the scope of a day ticket.

A large part of the day will doubtless be spent on land, in the art gallery belt at the southern end of town, where the Rembrandts, Vermeers and still-life masters of the Rijksmusum compete with the Van Goghs at the modern museum dedicated to the work of the mad Vincent — including several incarnations of his sunflower paintings.

Next door, the Stedilijk Museum promises world-class modern art, but out of season it displays disappointingly few of its Mondrians, Maleviches and other Post-Impressionists. Before leaving the museum belt, do wander down to the lively Leidseplein, which, although rather gaudy, is distinguished by the turn-of-the-century Cafe Americain, another Amsterdam institution. Each city center meeting point seems to have its signature cafe. In the Leidestraat shopping area, it’s the top floor of Metz, Amsterdam’s answer to Harvey Nichols, with a fantastic view of canalside rooftops, while on Spui Square, aficionados divide themselves between the Dante and the Luxembourg. Negotiating Amsterdam life depends on knowing the difference between a grand cafe (all the aforementioned — large and glamorous), a brown cafe (smaller and more traditional) and a coffee shop — which legally dispenses cannabis, with or without a shot of caffeine. Scary as they sound, these law-abiding establishments are safe, no one pushes customers to smoke, and the odd one, like the Jolly Joker, where a tiny hive of left-wing Jewish intellectual debate on the Nieuwmarkt, is an absolute gem. This former brown cafe, with its fabulous art nouveau light fittings, serves the best cappuccino in town against a suitably laid-back musical backdrop — everything from the Mamas and the Papas to modern Chill. Traditionalists may prefer the equally exquisite and tiny Papenisland, Amsterdam’s oldest brown cafe, named for the secret tunnel under the canal that Catholics used to reach their clandestine church in the days when their own religion was outlawed.

Visiting this fantastically lit watering hole for a nightcap would be reason enough to head for Jordaan, Amsterdam’s loveliest and also funkiest residential neighborhood, but although the nearby Brauwersgracht canal and its elegant homes and bridges are enchanting by night, its shops are equally worth a poke around during the day. A good bistro hereabouts is Lorrainen, but the gastronomic gem likely to be of greatest interest to Jewish visitors is the delightfully decorated Lucius fish restaurant, back in the town center on Spuistraat.

Tunisian Jews Defy Attack

Jews here persevered with their annual Lag B’Omer celebration this week in spite of a recent terrorist attack that rocked their tiny island community. The numbers were down from past celebrations, but still hundreds of tourists came to join the 1,000 Jewish Jerbans for the pilgrimage festivities.

The explosion of a gas truck — fatalities now number 18, including 13 German tourists — was first dismissed by Tunisian authorities as an accident. But then it became clear it was a deliberate act of terrorism, officials say, and the government has moved quickly to denounce the violence and contain the damage.

Tunisian authorities quickly paid to restore the El Ghriba synagogue, which traces its roots back more than 2,000 years. The government also encouraged and promoted the Lag B’Omer festivities, even inviting foreign journalists to see the reaction, both private and public, of this Muslim nation that prides itself on being a peaceful country. Their Muslim neighbors came out of their houses to watch and show support.

"The Jews are our brothers," a young Muslim man said proudly, even though he asked that his name not be used. "No matter what our religion, we’re all Tunisians."

Jews from all over the world — and especially Tunisians who live in France and Israel — come in droves to celebrate the pilgrimage festival that takes place at El Ghriba, the oldest and most famous synagogue in North Africa. The Jewish tourist frenzy reached a peak in the year 2000 when more than 8,000 people arrived for the festivities.

It is difficult to pin down the exact origins of the Jewish community in Jerba, a popular tourist site for Europeans off the coast of the Northern African nation of Tunisia. Most people concur with the legend that it was first settled by Jews who fled Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. They settled in two separate communities: Hara Kabira and Hara Seghira. Their descendants still live there today, engaged in a thriving and observant Jewish community, replete with Jewish schools, synagogues and kosher food.

Outbreaks of violence and harassment have periodically upset the peaceful co-existence between Jews and Muslims here. Often the tensions were a reflection of the situation in the Middle East.

The bulk of Tunisian Jews, which once numbered 100,000, emigrated in waves. The first wave came with the establishment of Israel in 1948, then with the end of French rule in 1956, and again in 1967, when the Six-Day War sparked anti-Jewish rioting, despite the relative moderation of the country’s then-president, Habib Bourguiba.

In the early 1990s, with the start of the Oslo peace process, Jews here were optimistic about their future.

Tunisia, once the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat, was among the Arab countries that established low-level diplomatic relations with Israel in the mid-1990s.

It has since cut those ties.

The minister of tourism, Mondher Zenaidi, hosted a dinner and expressed his personal horror at the attack in Jerba. This year’s pilgrimage was a "victory against obscurantism and fanaticism," he was quoted as saying as he pledged that Tunisia would protect religious freedoms.

He acknowledged that Tunisia had cut off official diplomatic relations with Israel because of the current strife in the Middle East, but he insisted that this had nothing to do with the situation of Jews in Tunisia.

"Jews and Muslims are brothers," he said. "They are both Tunisians."

Avalon in August

Catalina is only 22 miles across the sea from Los Angeles, but to many visitors it feels like a distant land. For one particular community of Sephardic Jews, it’s that very feeling that has kept them coming back over the past 75 years.

To Rhodeslis, Ladino-speaking Jews from the Greek island of Rhodes, a trip to Avalon takes them halfway around the world.

Every third week in August, more than 200 Sephardim – some from the East Coast and Canada – travel en masse to Catalina for a cultural experience they don’t always get on the mainland.

“The first time I went there, I felt like I was in Rhodes,” says 91-year-old Rosa Franco. “It was beautiful.”The trip is an annual pilgrimage around which everything else is planned. Reservations are often made a year in advance, and there’s little that will make a Rhodesli consider canceling.”If you want to have low attendance at a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah,” says Clement Cohen, 65, “have it on the third week in August.”

While the island’s only city doesn’t always hold the public spellbound, Rhodeslis see Avalon as an opportunity to indulge nostalgia and spend quality time with loved ones.

“We spend half the time reflecting on old memories and the other half creating new ones,” says Sarita Fields, 57, whose family has been going to Avalon since 1925.

Most Rhodeslis who immigrated to the United States did so shortly after Italy took control of Rhodes from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Those who came to Los Angeles settled primarily in Boyle Heights. By the 1920s, word of Catalina’s temperate climate, pebbled beaches and slower pace of life had spread through the tight-knit Rhodesli community. Avalon’s streets and fountain reminded them of Rhodes’ la Juderia (the Jewish quarter). Catalina was a taste of home, and the “Island of Romance” quickly became a honeymoon destination for the first generation.

The annual trip to Avalon was the only vacation many Rhodeslis took from their jobs as shoemakers, flower peddlers or grocers. Friends and families – among them the Hassons and Benvenistes – would meet at the Sephardic Hebrew Center on Hoover Street and discuss travel plans.

“Relatives from Rhodes would talk about Catalina all year long,” says 62-year-old Rose Benon.The trip from the mainland on the luxurious S.S. Avalon or S.S. Catalina was an event in itself. Most travelers spent the two-hour steamship trip ballroom dancing to big-band music, and dressing up for the crossing was de rigueur.

“My mother always wore a nice dress with spectator heels, and my father wore a suit and tie,” says Fields.For lodging, singles and couples without children turned to The Island Villas, a collection of affordable one-room wooden bungalettes that could hold up to 1,100 guests comfortably. Those married with children would rent homes, and some toted their own pots, pans, dishes, silverware and food.

“They would bake there,” says Benon. “They would make boyous, boerekas, comidas, fry fish that the men caught. Everyone would have dinner together.”

With little money for entertainment, adults and children would hike to the Wrigley House or the Bird Park, which displayed 3,600 rare birds for free until it closed in 1966. At night, they bought ice cream and walked to the Catalina Casino, the Art Deco landmark that featured acts like Benny Goodman and Glen Miller. For a dime, many would take moonlit rides around the bay in the shoreboat.

Like other Los Angeles Jewish communities, Rhodeslis had moved from Boyle Heights to both the Westside and the San Fernando Valley by the late 1960s. As the community spread, the annual trek to Catalina became an increasingly significant cultural event. By the 1980s, the third week in August had gradually become the time to meet in Avalon to reconnect with other Rhodesli Sephardim.

“I’ve been going since I can remember,” says 41-year-old Larry Peha. “It’s the cousins that you haven’t seen in a long time. We take over the island. Everywhere you walk, you know somebody. It’s a lot of fun.”The epicenter of today’s Rhodesli Avalon experience is arguably the Pavilion Lodge, which overlooks the beach on Crescent Avenue. A favorite for more than 30 years, the Pavilion’s garden courtyard is the regular scene of commun-ity events [see sidebar, page 27] and parties.

“We always have an excuse to throw a party,” says Clement Cohen, who, with his wife Esther, hasn’t missed a summer since 1959. “A birthday, an anniversary, someone caught some fish. We’ll make up an excuse to have a party.”

Several people celebrate their birthdays while in Catalina. One of them is 73-year-old Al Huniu. For his 50th, several of Huniu’s friends had teenagers march through the streets yelling “Huniu! Huniu!” while carrying a banner and signs bearing his name. People who stumbled onto the scene thought it was a political rally.

“They really surprised me,” says Huniu, who has seen similar marches for his 60th and 70th birthdays.There are more serious rituals, too. The community’s matriarchs will often choose one day to observe a Sephardic tradition called ondas a la mar (waves to the sea).

“I Remember Rhodes” author Rebecca Amato Levy, 88, says that the women walk into Avalon Bay to “wash their faces, arms and feet to draw sickness and bad luck into the ocean.”

Catalina has inspired many to travel to Rhodes to experience their ancestral home, sometimes with groups of other Rhodesli descendents from around the globe. A tour last year featured High Holiday services in Kahal Shalom, Rhodes’ only remaining synagogue.

Regulars say that interest in the Catalina trip has been on the rise in recent years. Though no one has taken an official count, the number of Jews who travel to Avalon for the third week in August has jumped from roughly 150 to almost 250 during the past decade.

“The merging of the temple had a lot to do with that,” says Cohen. In the early 1990s, Rhodesli synagogue Beth Shalom (formerly the Sephardic Hebrew Center) merged with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. At the Rhodesli community’s invitation, the Sephardic Temple’s congregants – mostly Moroccan, Syrian and Greek – have joined the party in recent years.Another contributing factor has been the unshakable enthusiasm of the younger generations. Many who spent their summers in Catalina in the ’70s and ’80s are now bringing their own children to Avalon, some just weeks old, to pass on the torch.

“I’ve been going to Catalina almost every summer of my life,” says 40-year-old Cynthia Seider. “My children have not missed a summer. It’s a place we really cherish. When I speak of Catalina to people, I get goosebumps.”