One L.A. party raises $7 million for Israel Defense Forces

It could well be a happy new year for Israel’s military, as their friends on the West Coast just raised a bundle for Israeli soldiers through the organization Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). At a Western Region summer party hosted by real estate entrepreneur Daniel Mani and his wife, Tsipi, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came one step closer to realizing a longtime dream of constructing “a city of training bases” in the Negev. In February, the FIDF promised $45 million for the project, which is expected to serve 11,000 IDF soldiers and includes plans for multiple training bases, roads, hotels, a mall, a country club and movie theaters. One FIDF donor, who asked that her name not be used, pledged $3.5 million for a swimming pool facility for the Negev Education and Wellbeing Centers, one of 11 facilities the FIDF will help build. 

Media mogul Haim Saban and wife Cheryl matched the anonymous donor’s $3.5 million gift and promised an additional $100,000 to fund a Sports Court and Visitors Park for the Negev project, which, in 2006, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz estimated would cost the country more than $2 billion. The move is part of the country’s overall mission to move military bases out of central Israel and to promote the development of the Negev, the lifelong dream of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

IDF support ensures bright future for Jews worldwide

The future of world Jewry and that of the State of Israel are inextricably bound. Today, this notion no longer enjoys the luxury of residing in the intellectual domains of the ideological or the philosophical. It reflects a sobering realism to which Jews worldwide ought to awaken hastily and with conviction, and it merits a call to action on behalf of Israel’s security, both for Israel’s sake and for our own, for reasons that are both obvious and otherwise.

Whether to strengthen Israel’s defense, to help maintain its ability to protect or rescue Jews at risk beyond Israel, to support the vitality and success of Israel’s next generations or to promote Jewish identity among our own youth and young adults, it is imperative that our efforts to ensure Israel’s future and our own include an essential commitment on our part, as Jews who live outside of Israel, to the welfare of the young men and women who serve as soldiers in the IDF — Israel’s Defense Forces.

Why so? Consider some of the major challenges and vulnerabilities that Jews living in Israel and elsewhere must face together today and for the foreseeable future.

Friends of the IDF Special SectionIn our era, Israel’s Jewish population has become the world’s largest, and it is the only one in the world with a positive birthrate. As North America’s Jewish population grows older on average and decreases in number, Israel’s continues to grow younger and increases in number.

Jews throughout the world will experience Israel evermore in the generations to come as the center place of the Jewish experience, due to this population shift alone. Therefore, our investment in Israel’s next generation becomes, more so than ever, one of our most important investments in the Jewish future. Moreover, if our own youth and young adults connect to Israel, they will be more likely to connect to the more vibrant expressions of Judaism in the decades to come.

I do not at all mean to suggest that anyone should give up on Jews and Judaism outside of Israel. But we would be wise to ensure that the IDF remains capable not only of defending Israel, but of fostering and encouraging healthy generations to come of the largest Jewish population in the world.

After all, by sheer necessity, due to the large number of young adults and reservists required for Israel’s protection at any given moment, the IDF is one of Israel’s largest social service agencies, it is one of Israel’s most important educational agencies for the purposes of teaching Jewish history and the history of the State of Israel to Israeli youth, and it is often the training ground for technical or professional careers for Israeli men and women who contribute after their IDF service to one of the world’s most advanced workforces and economies or go on to study in some of the world’s finest universities.

In supporting the humanitarian welfare of the IDF, we can help to ensure that Israel’s future is a bright one and that our own children and grandchildren will have meaningful partners in Israel with whom they can collaborate for decades to come in the development of every facet of Jewish life and otherwise.

However, as vulnerable as we are in North America to the population challenge, Israel has its vulnerabilities, as well — some of them equally existential in nature. Iran’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons is a cause for serious alarm; its training and arming of Hezbollah and Hamas with rockets and missiles enables each alone to threaten the normalcy of daily life throughout all of Israel.

Add to these the challenges posed by a conventionally re-armed and nuclear-aspiring Syria and the lack of any reasonable signs of the emergence of a sincere partner for peace among even the “moderate” Palestinian Authority, and it is clear that Israel lives in a neighborhood at least as rough as it has always been.

Israel’s vulnerability to a nuclear-armed foe is compounded by the fact that two-thirds of Israel’s roughly 5.5 million Jews live within a 3,500-square-mile area on the Mediterranean coastline. Iran’s ruler, the Ayatollah Khameini, has therefore posited quite publicly that one nuclear weapon dropped on Tel Aviv would, for all practical purposes, destroy the State of Israel.

Israel’s need to ensure its military superiority is a foregone necessity, given all of the above. Israel cannot afford to spend one dime less than it must spend on its defense, for a mistake worth even a dime could cost the entire country.

Given what the IDF must spend on training, planning, arming and maintaining its personnel, it relies heavily upon the generosity of individuals, foundations and corporate sponsors — both in Israel and beyond — to fund the humanitarian welfare of its soldiers. A great many of Israel’s young men and women serve not only in defense of Israel but with an ever-present awareness that they are serving on behalf of every Jew everywhere in the world.

Their strength gives us strength. Their courage inspires our own courage. Not only are they a source of enormous Jewish pride for so many of us in their decency, humanity and dedication, but they deserve our own support for that which they extend to us every day.

I have met and spoken with literally thousands of Israeli soldiers, ages 18-21, over the years, and I have yet to encounter even one of them unready or unwilling to protect or rescue a Jew in distress anywhere in the world and at a moment’s notice. Our support for their humanitarian welfare is the least that we can do for those who embody and exhibit such extraordinary commitment to the Jewish people and to our homeland.

There are yet other existential threats, some of them growing and deepening, to which Jews in Israel and all of us elsewhere are increasingly susceptible. Advocates for Israel’s demise urge the world toward a normative view that Zionism is an imperialist, colonialist and racist ideology. The campaign to discredit Israel and challenge its very right to exist is organized and energized.

The vast majority of those involved in perpetrating this big lie cloak their anti-Semitism with the veil of anti-Zionism. They manipulate public opinion to affect the foreign policies of countries that have enjoyed cooperative relationships with Israel, including our own, suggesting the “Zionists” dominate the press or unduly influence legislators.

Similarly, they work to isolate Israel, to ban its scholars and products and to tie its hands when attacked by terrorists. Increasingly, Israelis and other Jewish academicians and diplomats are challenged to prove their lack of bias in favor of Israel by repudiating their Zionism and even renouncing their Israeli citizenship.

Of course, we were just reminded by the gruesome attack on the Chabad house in Mumbai by Islamic terrorists that the treachery of anti-Semitism does not differentiate between Israeli Jews and Jews of other nationalities. When it comes to anti-Semitism, all Jews sail in the same boat, and we are seaworthy only to the extent that we remain united.

When the world perceives Israel to be strong and willing to act as it needs to do so, either in its own defense or to deter aggression against itself or Jews anywhere else, and when it is clear that Jews worldwide stand likewise behind Israel’s soldiers both in spirit and otherwise, Jews throughout the world are the safer for it.

Our strong support for the humanitarian welfare of Israel’s young men and women serving in the IDF is an absolute necessity toward this end, as it allows the IDF to focus on its daunting but surmountable job in defense of Israel and the Jewish people, while it supports and boosts the morale of troops who give so much of themselves, knowing they may be called upon to give even more.

Israel’s security rests upon the shoulders of the men and women of the IDF. As do Jews from other countries today, our children will need Israel and Israelis as primary partners for their development and deepening of their Jewish identities. As well, existential threats shared by Jews in Israel and around the world will be addressed in partnership by both together.

However, let’s remember who the young men and women of the IDF are: They are our children, too. They are our sons and daughters, our boys and girls. They are family. They need us. And, they know, at least as much as we do, that we need them.

Both our present and our future are indeed inextricably bound by a sacred trust, and it is up to us to ensure that this trust is never broken.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes. Among his various communal involvements, he serves currently as the chair of the National Rabbinic Cabinet of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), as the vice president of the L.A. chapter of FIDF and as a member of FIDF’s national board.

The soldier in the center ring

“Sagiv’s from Israel!” a woman whispered to her seat partner as Aloysia Gavre, director of the West Hollywood Cirque School, introduced Sagiv Ben-Binyamin, a Hadera-born aerial artist and instructor, at a public showcase for the circus school.

As far as he has traveled, literally, from Israel to this Southern Californian loft-like gym space, Ben-Binyamin has come an even greater distance in recent years in his transition from the Israeli army to the circus sphere, a change he refers to as “extreme.”

Ben-Binyamin, 30, served for three years before moving to the United States at 22, and his move raises an interesting question: Is life in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the strictest armies in the world, really so different from performing the high-wire act he’s now doing? Could it be that a three-ring circus and a three-prong attack have more in common than we think? After all, the demands of the circus and the army overlap threefold: physical endurance, group support and all that drama (just watch any episode of “Army Wives” to see the incredible amount of theatrics that surface at least once a week).

Regardless of such surface similarities, Ben-Binyamin says these days he feels pretty far from his Israeli army experience.

“It’s been a while since I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It was physically hard, I think, mainly because of no sleep … especially at the age when you need 10 hours of sleep.”

But it was important to him to serve. He notes that service is emblematic of the Israeli culture, an institution in which all participate: “I’m happy that I did it.”

“I think it’s pretty similar,” he added. “In the army they teach you how to support each other, and in the circus, naturally you want to support and help your fellow performers.”

But the army wasn’t enough to keep Ben-Binyamin away from his long fascination with gymnastics, which led him to the circus.

“When I moved here, I discovered the circus … I was sucked into it so fast, and I found a local job here, you know, grooming pets and animals. I didn’t have the right visa necessarily, but I wanted to stay here.”

Already, he’s moved from Seattle to Florida to San Diego and now Los Angeles. He’s also working for Cher in her Las Vegas show at Caesars Palace and getting ready for Broadway with the original production of “Birdhouse Factory.”

As far as long-lasting benefits, the army and the circus both come into play. In doing stunts for the “Spider-Man” movie as a side gig, Ben-Binyamin said his circus training was helpful, but he also needed to be tough, “I guess that’s the Israeli part.”