The Unsung Plumber Who Laid the Foundations for the Zionist Organization ‘The Israel Group’

May 26, 2020
(Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

My father was a poster boy for Zionism. He was never in the limelight but after he found his Judaism, then participated on a Jewish Federation mission to Israel, he dedicated his entire life to Israel.

Starting with the Yom Kippur War in 1973, every day he wore an “Israel Must Live” button — everywhere. (Some even believed he wore it to bed.) During the 1970s oil embargo, when some cars displayed “Burn Jews Not Oil” stickers, my dad’s bumper sticker read, “Israel’s Fate Is the Fate of the U.S.” That was on his car until a few months ago, when he stopped driving to work.

My dad, Edward Saltzberg, was born in Los Angeles in 1932, the grandson of a Yiddish stage actress from Winnipeg, Canada. When he was a little boy, his father got cancer and basically moved to City of Hope. (While critically sick, he used to sneak out to work to support the family.) After my grandfather died, my grandmother placed my dad in a Jewish orphanage, Vista Del Mar, during the week so she could work several jobs.

While in his teens, my dad worked on barbecues that his adopted father had patented and manufactured. His responsibility was cutting, sanding and placing insulation into the barbecues. That insulation was made of asbestos, and likely because of that, my dad died this month from mesothelioma.

While we were growing up, our presents were always small because, as my dad explained, Israel needed our money more than we did. Needless to say, I resented Israel from an early age.

After my dad returned from his first mission to Israel, he voluntarily began fundraising several hours a week for the Jewish Federation. He told me a story about going to a mansion in Beverly Hills to solicit funds. He spoke to a man about Israel’s urgent need for support and, after several hours, the man said to my dad: “You’ve made great points. Last year, I gave $100, and I’m glad to let you know that this year, I’m upping it to $150.” Crushed, my father never again fundraised, although he continued to volunteer his time in many areas.

Years later, a man excitedly approached my dad, calling him by his first name —  but my dad had no idea who he was. The man said that years earlier, my dad had spent hours at his home in Beverly Hills speaking passionately about Israel, and it excited him so much that he’s now the chairman of this committee and on that finance committee and so on. Obviously, the lesson is that we never know which seeds that we plant will take hold and grow.

Early on, my dad searched for his religious identity, even exploring Catholicism and Hinduism. One day, during his 20s, while my sister Diane was on the porch coloring with her friend, my dad heard the little girl say to my sister, “You color Jesus and I’ll color the Jews killing him.” My sister later asked my dad, “If she’s Catholic, what are we?” Shaken, and understanding that his kids needed to know their Jewish heritage, he quickly joined a small Reform congregation that was renting space from a church in Westwood.

My father’s dream was to live in Israel, but it never happened.

To this day, I recall standing on Mulholland Drive as Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin stuck his shovel into the dirt for the groundbreaking of Stephen S. Wise Temple, often said to be the largest Reform congregation in the world. My first Hebrew school teacher was Metuka Benjamin, who became an internationally recognized educator.

My father’s dream was to live in Israel, but it never happened. However, from his home in Los Angeles, his dedication to Israel led to a son, granddaughter and grandson all serving in the Israel Defense Forces — even though all were born in the U.S. And his Zionist seeds ultimately led to the founding of The Israel Group, an organization dedicated to fighting for Israel in the Diaspora.

Starting as a journeyman plumber and paying his way through college, my dad became one of the nation’s most respected and honored plumbing and mechanical engineers. He wrote many of Los Angeles’ plumbing codes that are still used today. My father received countless industry awards and a Wikipedia entry but his Zionism and decades of work for the benefit of Israel have never been publicly acknowledged. I’m trying to rectify that here.

Right now, I know my dad is still wearing his “Israel Must Live” button. And thanks to Zionists like him in the Diaspora, Israel will!

Jack Saltzberg is the president and founder of The Israel Group, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Israel and fighting against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

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