Shalit recovering well, his grandfather says

Gilad Shalit has recovered from the physical ordeal of his Gaza captivity, his grandfather said.

Tzvi Shalit met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to update him on the rehabilitation of the Israeli soldier who was seized by Hamas-led gunmen in 2006 and kept incommunicado until his release as part of an Egyptian-brokered prisoner swap in October.

“Gilad has put on weight.  He really is back to normal,”  Netanyahu’s office quoted Shalit’s grandfather as telling the prime minister.

“You saved my grandson for me.  In the current situation in the region, it would have been impossible to return him.”

YULA Alumna Injured in Blast

Tuesday morning prayers at the girls school of Yeshiva High School of Los Angeles (YULA) took a little longer than usual this week.

It wasn’t just the extra Tehillim (Psalms) the high school girls added for their former schoolmate Ariella Feinstein, 20, who was injured in Saturday night’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem. It was that each girl seemed to need just a little more time with her prayers to reflect on what is going on in Israel, and how it keeps getting a little closer to home.

"The younger ones don’t know Ariella, so they relate to it differently. But many of the seniors were just in tears," says Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, educational director at YULA.

Feinstein was injured when shrapnel from the bombs lodged in her legs and face. She is currently recovering from surgery.

Feinstein was the second YULA graduate in just a few months to bring terrorism in Israel closer to home for the Los Angeles Orthodox community. In August, Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum, who graduated from YULA in 1988, was killed when a suicide bomber blew up Sbarro Pizza in downtown Jerusalem.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, where the Feinsteins are members, says Feinstein is a "very special, sweet kid" from strong and kind family. Her parents, Dr. Charlie and Alice Feinstein, had just returned from Israel three weeks ago, and Alice Feinstein went back this week to be with her daughter.

It wasn’t until Sunday night that Dina Morrow, 20, also a YULA graduate and a friend of Feinstein’s, told her mother, Linda, that she was in the area when the blast occurred. Morrow told her mother that her roommate, Temima Spetner, a yeshiva student from St. Louis, was seriously injured when the bomb severed Spertner’s femoral artery, and a bolt punctured her intestine and lodged near her spine.

Tali Katz, a YULA senior whose family moved to Los Angeles from Israel five years ago, was deeply affected by news of Feinstein’s injuries.

"When my brother called and told me, I felt that thumping in my heart, that adrenaline rush, like, ‘Oh my God, I know that person,’ " Katz says. "But even people we don’t know are our brothers and sisters and we should feel that thumping in our heart every time — but we don’t."

Sarah Stomel, a senior who is president of the school’s Israel Club said, "I was crying when I heard about Ariella, because it really made me realize that everyone who is hurt or killed has families and friends, and now we are experiencing what they experience every day." The Israel Club, which gives daily and weekly news updates, sells dogtags to help Israel’s MIAs, is initiating a pen-pal program with a school in Israel.

Many of the girls at YULA are planning to attend yeshiva in Israel next year, and they have no intention of changing those plans.

"If we stopped going to Israel and gave up on it, it would be like letting the terrorists win, like we’re letting them scare us off," says YULA senior Esther Behmanesh.

Debbie Schrier, the school’s interim principal, thinks Feinstein’s injuries might penetrate the students’ sense of invulnerability, much as it has done for weary parents.

"Until this the kids felt untouchable, thinking, ‘all right, this is going on but we’re going to Israel anyway.’ But it depends on to what degree this escalates," says Schrier, who has a daughter who is a senior at YULA who plans to go to Israel next year.

The girls, however, seem to have taken a much different lesson from this.

"Ariella told her parents she didn’t regret her year in Israel and she wants to stay," says Tiffany Lev, a senior. "That is total counter attack, because she won’t be afraid."

Freedom. Empathy. Pain.

My fireplace mantle is stuffed &’9;with get-well cards. They come from people I know and many I’ve never met. One of them might have come from you. In the two months since I started writing about my lung cancer, the cards have been flowing in, plus an equal number or more of e-mails. They touch me deeply.

As I prepare for Passover, I think about putting the cards away. There are so many, they slip and fall off the mantle onto the floor. I’m having 25 for dinner; surely it’s time to pile the cards into a box. The surgery was a while ago, and even my scars are healing.

But no, the get-well cards are coming with me, with my family and our guests, on the tribal journey we take this weekend from slavery to freedom.

How could it be otherwise? When we sit down to the seder, we are told to remember that this matzah and that karpas, these bitter herbs and that charoset, are because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt. I’m still not sure that my cancer is "my Egypt," but the cards tell me what God is.

God is empathy. God is the two-sided conversation between the one in pain and the ones who comfort the suffering. When the Children of Israel cried, God found a way out. Without that call and response, we are all slaves.

The question is one of willingness.

In the final plague, the Torah presents an interesting conundrum: God has told the Israelites to paint both the lintels and the insides of their homes with blood, so to be spared the slaying of the first born. Yet the Torah says that on that dreaded night Pharaoh was roused by the crying, "for there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Exodus 12:30)

Well, which is it? Were Jews protected or not? Did the Israelite children die or didn’t they?

My own experience tells me that empathy knows no such divisions. The world of the slave is divided between "haves" and "have nots"; there is a plantation, a water fountain, a wall of stucco and mesh between those who deserve blessings and those who are scorned or damned.

But for those who live in freedom, fate is fluid. It is the great unknown. All that buffers us from life’s hardships is our ability to care; the burdens and responsibilities for each other that we choose to take on with an open, unbounded heart. This is community, and it is our only sane choice. There are no hard divisions between cancer and not-cancer, or as Levi-Strauss said in another regard, between "raw" and "cooked." In freedom, the death of one’s neighbor’s child is tantamount to our own.

I learned that lesson again this week, in a newly horrific way.

Among the 18 dead in last week’s fatal crash of the Aspen-bound private Gulfstream III jet was Ori Greenberg, 23-year-old son of George and Victoria Greenberg. George is president of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (MJC&S). Since Thursday, every Malibu family has held its children close, for it seems that there is no house where there was not some child dead.

I’ve sat on the temple board with George, who heads Vanguard Media Corp., in Westlake. I know his dignity and class, and how community lives in him. Victoria is a mainstay of MJC&S, part of every committee and mastermind of our High Holiday tent service, which attracts 1,000 worshippers. Their daughter, Rosalia, 11, is one of our stars, with a brilliant glow.

Ori Greenberg was bar mitzvah in our temple, played soccer in the local AYSO, and went to the local public high school. I’ve seen his 15-minute short film, "Havoc," which told the story of a drug bust from the point of view of a young homeless woman. It justifiably earned him the Best Director award at the Santa Monica Film Festival and feature work at the Independent Film Channel.

With young Greenberg were his fiancée Elizabeth Ann Smith, 21, and his Chapman College roommate, Mirweis "Mir" Tukhi, 26, assignment editor at KTTV. At the funeral, Ori’s grieving parents addressed a crowd of more than 350. George and Victoria rose in praise: of community that had restored them in the hours since the plane careened into the Rockies; in praise of the love of Liz and Ori, cast forever in a Gatsby-like glow.

But that was not all. The Greenbergs praised Tukhi and their son. Tukhi’s younger and older brothers, Faheed and Jawad, both spoke at the funeral, praising the friendship between Muslim and Jew that began with a love of Tukhi’s mother’s rice.

"You want to know how to help me?" Victoria Greenberg told the crowd. "Be kinder to those who disagree with you. Love each other more."

The question is one of willingness.


King Hussein’s battle with lymph cancer leaves Israel hoping for the best


Israel’s Best(Arab) Friend


By Larry Derfner, Tel Aviv Correspondent

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that not only he, but all of Israel, was praying for Jordanian King Hussein’s recovery from lymph cancer, Netanyahu might have been exaggerating for effect — but not by much.

Hussein is by far the most popular — if not the only popular — Arab leader in the eyes of Israelis. Only the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat might have eclipsed Hussein’s popularity here. The Jordanian king is well-spoken of by the Israeli right, left and center — even by those who don’t hide their hatred of Yasser Arafat and their mistrust of outspoken anti-Netanyahu leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Now Hussein, 62, who has ruled his country since he was 17 years old, is in danger. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic, where Hussein is being treated, say he will have to continue treatment there for as long as five months. The king’s heir is his 50-year-old brother, Prince Hassan.

Jordan is the most stable Arab country, and the friendliest to Israel. What will it mean if there is a change in power in the kingdom? Oded Granot, a diplomatic correspondent for the Ma’ariv Daily, notes that Hassan is also a moderate political figure, and that an orderly transfer of power would be expected.

“But Prince Hassan is not as popular as Hussein, and he would have to work much harder to pull Jordan out of its economic and governmental crises. Hassan would also have to work especially hard to convince the Jordanian people that they must continue the peace process with Israel, even though Israel is continually at odds with the Palestinians,” Granot says.

Jordan is a poor country. Its people have not tasted the “fruits of peace” — economic prosperity — they were told to expect as a result of the 1994 peace agreement with Israel. The government opposition is dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, which is intimately connected to Hamas. Most of Jordan’s intellectual class has always been overtly anti-Israeli, even during the Rabin-Peres years, and their sentiments have reached a new pitch during the Netanyahu regime.

If and when he ascends to the throne, Prince Hassan will have his hands full maintaining the stability his brother has managed for nearly a half-century. (Hussein was crowned after an Arab in Jerusalem assassinated his grandfather, King Abdallah, for taking a relatively peaceful approach to the new Jewish state.)

King Hussein wasn’t always an Israeli favorite. Acting on overly optimistic advice from then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, he attacked Jerusalem during the Six Day War and lost the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, for his trouble. As a result, the Jordanian monarch was lumped together in the Israeli view as part of a broad Arab front that only wanted to push the Jews into the sea.

But beginning with Golda Meir in the early 1970s, Hussein began meeting clandestinely with Israeli leaders, and became known as the most moderate of Arab heads of state. Despite his public statements, he is considered more of a rival than a supporter of Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. (The PLO tried to overthrow Hussein in “Black September” of 1970, but Hussein won out in a bitter, bloody struggle.) His support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War was a matter not of choice but of necessity. Saddam’s million-man army threatened Jordan on its eastern border. The Jordanian masses were intoxicated with Saddam; opposing the Iraqi leader might have led Hussein’s people to revolt. In the end, Saddam was humbled and King Hussein was left standing.

“The secret of his success is his personality — a combination of great charm and tremendous ability to improvise and read the mood of the street,” says Granot.

He won the hearts of Israelis during the signing of the peace accord in Washington, when he and his wife, Queen Noor — the former Lisa Halaby of Philadelphia — cried openly during the moving speech by Yitzhak Rabin. He won their hearts again two years later, when he came to Israel and sat on the floor alongside the families mourning their seven children who had been murdered in Jordan by a soldier.

For the last three decades, Hussein has put Israel’s mind at ease about its eastern border. He has also taught Israelis a few lessons in grace, humility and warmth. It may be going too far to say all Israelis are praying for his recovery. But they’re certainly hoping for it.