In 1997, 12-year-old San Francisco native Eva Leah Gunther was killed by a drunken driver after she stepped into the street in Charlotte, N.C.
A black belt in taekwondo, Gunther had traveled to North Carolina to represent California in her first Junior Olympics tournament.
After her death, her grandparents, Los Angeles philanthropists Richard and Lois Gunther, started a taekwondo program in Israel in her name. The program, which has been operating for nearly 20 years, serves underprivileged girls newly arrived in Israel.
Every year, the Gunthers provide $15,000 to the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel to fund the program, which is overseen by the Israel Taekwondo Federation. To date, the federation has enrolled 190 girls.
The program operates in Rishon LeZion, a city south of Tel Aviv, and primarily serves Ethiopian girls.
In an interview with the Journal, Richard Gunther, 93, said he wanted to create an active memorial to commemorate Eva’s passion for taekwondo and her strong connection to her Jewish identity.
“We wanted to create a living memorial in Israel,” Richard said in an email. “From this thinking came the idea of funding scholarships in Israel for girls to take serious Taekwondo instruction. The girls learn self-discipline, self-respect, how to exercise and basic self-defense. Most importantly, it gives girls the chance to participate in a class and in workshops like other Israeli children, and gives them the feeling that they really do belong in the country and offers opportunities their Ethiopian families could not afford.”
“I think it is a creative example of a Diaspora Jew and family interacting with Israel.” — Richard Gunther
Richard has served as co-president for Americans for Peace Now and on the board of the New Israel Fund. He and Lois are the namesakes of the future Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles senior-focused site that is currently being constructed on Fairfax Avenue. When completed, the former home of the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center will be known as the JFS Lois and Richard Gunther Center.
The Gunthers’ taekwondo program originally was designed for girls who had been in Israel only a few years, and initially served mainly Russian girls. There was interest in engaging Ethiopian girls, as well, but they were too shy to participate in the classes, Gunther said.
“A lot of the Ethiopian girls felt like they were outside the orbit. They were not integrated well into society, like so many of the immigrants,” he said, and so the Gunthers offered additional funds to serve the additional Ethiopian girls who began taking the martial arts classes.
Ultimately, Gunther said, the taekwondo program “has done wonders for the girls. It raises their whole self-esteem.”
In addition, he said, the program illustrates how someone living in the Diaspora can support the Jewish state.
“I think it is a creative example of a Diaspora Jew and family interacting with Israel, and making a small contribution in a small way,” he said. “We’re making an impact on the young girls in the program. It is a satisfying thing for our family to do, because our granddaughter was a wonderful young woman. To see her memorialized in a program like this, which we know she would have loved, we know we are doing something important in her name.”