May 24, 2019

Jewish Heart: How Jewish Communities are Giving Back

Being good stewards of the land and offering good will towards man represents genuine Jewish values. Perhaps this is one reason Israel recycles more than other countries around the world, including the United States. Now, there are a number of ways members of the Jewish community give back, and the following are some worth pointing out.

Give to the Poor


Members of the Jewish community, specifically practicing Jewish people, seem to be more generous than those who do not practice the religion. The obvious way these people donate is through their religious organizations, but that has changed in today’s modern age. People also donate to their favorite charities online and some use apps to do this. This is probably happening more because most people, not only members of Jewish communities, hold their revenue digitally rather than in cash.

The group that donations seem to be directed at the most is poor. This should show Americans that there are a lot of values worth adopting that are safely tucked within Jewish communities. It is hard to see the good in other communities, especially during today’s racially toxic environment, but this should show just how much beauty is left to be shared across cultures or religions.

Recycling is Holy Duty


Active Jews or family members raised by individuals who believe the commandments set by holy texts know that it is their duty to protect the earth. This could be one reason many Jewish people consider themselves environmentalists. Some of these individuals would probably point to Tikkum Olam to prove that protecting the earth is their duty. Tikkum Olam says it is the duty of humanity to fix the world.

It should be noted that the Bal Tash’chit commandment also exists and tells individuals that the willful destruction of the world is not allowed. This is one reason why many members of the Jewish community are doing their best to help people recycle. Some have taken up the idea of composting at home while others go online to sell laptop so that gadgets continue to be reused in a productive way. Others are getting rid of their old cars by either donating the vehicle or by simply calling a junkyard to ensure it is taken care of properly.

Community Growth


There does not seem to be a shortage of goodwill towards humanity and towards each other within Jewish communities around the country. There is one trend that is definitely worth pointing out, and it is the efforts some Jewish neighborhoods are taking to jumpstart community gardens. These have proven successful in several communities, and the trend is set to continue growing.

A positive thing about these community gardens is that most of the food grown is organic. The organic trend is pretty big, not just within the Jewish community but within American culture, so this move should not surprise many. It is probably not surprising that some of these communities have decided to donate some of their surplus food to the poor, which makes sense. No one is saying this particular move is going to save people from starvation, but it is nice to see that some communities are doing the right thing.

These are just some ways Jewish communities across the country are shining brighter than ever. This type of shine is sorely needed, and hopefully, it is bright enough to attract people who do not know how to embrace their humanity by giving forward. There are probably a number of other ways to help humanity just waiting to be discovered by individuals.

Young entrepreneurs earn gelt for the community good

“We call these tchotchkes,” Keith Wasserman says, examining a snow globe. The 27-year-old founder and president of Gelt Inc. talks into a video camera as he walks around the furnished unit in a Bakersfield apartment complex, which the company purchased in 2009.

The video is featured on Gelt Inc.‘s YouTube channel, Gelt TV. In addition to videos, the company uses blogging to raise its profile and fulfill its commitment of transparency to its investors and clients.

“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial,” Wasserman said in an interview.

Gelt Inc., named for the Chanukah chocolate coins, wears its Judaism proudly and has made charitable giving an important part of its mission. In addition to Jewish charities, such as the Jewish Home, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Gelt Inc. also supports charities that aid the communities it invests in, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Kern County and Court Appointed Special Advocates of Kern County.

The business plan for Wasserman’s San Fernando Valley-based company consists primarily of investing in 75-  to 500-unit distressed apartment complexes in California and Arizona and renovating them to add value before renting the units out to individuals and families. Founded in 2008 during the height of the recession, Gelt Inc. now owns 15 buildings, representing nearly 1,000 multifamily units.

Wasserman’s partners include Damian Langere, the company’s 31-year-old co-founder and Wasserman’s cousin, and Evan Rock, 26, its vice president. The three young professionals don’t have the purchasing power or the experience to pay for the buildings and run the business completely on their own; Gelt Inc. has investors. Wasserman and his partners take advantage of current low interest rates by borrowing from banks, and they brought aboard two “gray hairs,” Wasserman said, referring to Steve Wasserman, his father, a successful transactional attorney in Tarzana, and Adrian Goldstein, a 50-something commercial real estate maven.

“We have a good combination of youth and energy and new ideas, and we have Adrian and my dad, who bring the experience and wisdom,” said Wasserman, who grew up attending L.A. Jewish day schools.

Goldstein said that the members of the team complement each other, and he values the core members’ tech savvy.

“A lot of new technology for the business, new ways of communicating with our investors and with our consumers—whether it’s social media or new applications that help us keep track of our contractors, our bids, schedules—we have a seamless platform that is made all that much better by young people who grew up in the technology age,” Goldstein said.

Wasserman speaks excitedly about the way everyone works together. Rock is “more of our numbers guy—he oversees the new acquisitions, prices the deals, deals with the financing, the refinancing. … Damian, my cousin, he’s more on the ground, deals with the contractors, oversees the rehabs. … I’m more of the marketing, the networking and investor relations. Adrian oversees all of us, and he’s our mentor … and my dad just knows a lot of people.”

In April 2011, Gelt Inc. bought its largest building yet, a 415-unit, 257,000-square-foot apartment complex in Phoenix for $16 million. With the next acquisition, Gelt Inc. hopes to reach its milestone of owning more than 1,000 apartment units.

Wasserman said that the 2009 purchase of Vernon Vista, a 78-unit complex in Bakersfield, was the turning point for the company, which, for some time, had mainly acquired and renovated four-plexes, as opposed to larger complexes with dozens of units.

“It became more professional, more of a real business. We took it to the next level, going from $150,000 deals to $4 million deals,” Wasserman said.

The company’s rapid growth makes Wasserman hungry for more, and he’s thinking ahead—way ­ahead. Ten years from now, he would like to see the company running 10,000 units, with properties in Los Angeles as well as more in Phoenix.

Wasserman, who got his start running a successful eBay store out of his college apartment at USC, is serious about his commitment to his faith and using the business to serve the larger Jewish community.

“Going to a Jewish school since fifth grade”—he attended Stephen S. Wise Temple and Milken Community High School—“has really instilled in me a sense of pride about being Jewish. A lot of the organizations we support are Jewish organizations,” he said.

This love for the Jewish community also translates into support for pro-Israel organizations, including AIPAC, StandWithUs and the Israel Leadership Council.

Wasserman says he has heard complaints about the company name. His critics believe it feeds the stereotype of Jews “being money-hungry.”

He insists, however, that the name reinforces the company’s positive intentions.

“We want to have a platform of making money for the good,” he said.

Broad, Tugend, Goldberg, Hillel

The ‘Other’ Broad Museum

There are days when you’re stuck in freeway traffic and wonder why you ever came to Los Angeles. And then there are the moments when you know that there is no other place in the world to live. Such a moment came on Feb. 10, after receiving a handsome invitation from Eli Broad to visit his other little place, right next to the beach in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica.

It’s the Broad Art Foundation (BAF), not to be confused with the Broad Art Center (BAC) at UCLA or the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

The five-story BAF building, once a telephone switching station, stands a few minutes’ walk from the Bernard Beach and children’s playground. BAF bills itself as a “lending library of contemporary art drawn from the collections of Eli and Edythe Broad.” Although it opened in 1988, it is one of the lesser-known jewels of Los Angeles.

That’s because access is by request or invitation only and generally limited to art or museum officials and “other qualified individuals.”

But if you’re lucky enough to land on an invitation list, be ready for an experience generally only granted vicariously through classic films — as in the scene in which the hero and his beautiful date pull up and park in an always-empty parking space smack in front of the most popular club in town, and are then solicitously plied with drinks and delicacies.

Which is to say that the Broads know how to put on a party, or, in this case, a brunch reception for some 200 of the Broads’ buddies.

Forget about circling a crowded buffet table, trying to spear a soggy French toast or hardening bagel. At BAF, the brunch comes to you in small but never-ending portions of crepes filled with caviar or marmalades, and other items unknown to the plebeian palate — but smelling and tasting real good — all borne by lithe young waiters and waitresses.

The best place to start is on the rooftop sculpture garden, which features a breathtaking view of the sun-flecked Pacific as well as arrays of various coffee, cake and cookie permutations.

While contemporary art is not one of our fortes, we could appreciate Andreas Gursky’s giant photo composites of football games or cattle ranches, the acrylic oil paintings of Albert Oehlen and the impressionistic works of Neo Rauch.

Whether you get in or not, the ritzy neighborhood and the lovely beach are alone worth a visit.

Check out

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Humor, Hope Marks Goldberg Mideast Talk

Despite a stale room and a tough crowd, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg prodded his audience with sarcasm as he considered the clash of cultures in the Middle East. Discussing his book, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide” at Sinai Temple on Feb.7, Goldberg recounted his extraordinary story of how a Jew gained unprecedented access to the Palestinian people and their ideology.

Jeffrey GoldbergRaised on Long Island, Goldberg joined the Israeli army and was stationed as a prison guard at Ketziot military prison camp, which holds 6,000 Palestinian “rock-throwers, knifemen, bomb-makers and propagandists.” It was there that he befriended an imprisoned rising leader in the PLO, which illuminated his own thinking about the Palestinian struggle for nationhood.

While Goldberg warned several-hundred mostly middle-aged Jews that the topic would be “depressing,” his humor and insight infused even the most harrowing subjects with hope. Goldberg recalled his fear of getting kidnapped when “four guys with beards, not in Chabad” were trailing him through Gaza on his way to meet with a high-ranking terrorist leader. And when Fatah gunmen armed with AK-47s protected the Jewish journalist as he toured a Gazan city, he described them as “cramping [his] style.”

After interviewing terrorists in Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al Qaeda and the Taliban, Goldberg said America’s policy of trying to solve terrorism is fundamentally flawed.

“You cannot solve your terrorism problem by killing all terrorists,” he said.

“There are still people [in the Muslim world] that believe life is more meaningful than death and that suicide is not the answer to their temporal problems,” he added.

On the topic of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Goldberg admits “right now, the idea of peace talks is almost farcical — it’s ‘Alice and Wonderland’ stuff these days.”

Until Islam undergoes a civilizational struggle and reforms itself, Goldberg does not believe peace is possible. While he isn’t worried about Jews, he thinks that the Diaspora community “should focus more on the opportunities Israel provides and not just it problems.”

Invest in Israeli companies, he urged. Support Israel by supporting their innovations and ideas.

Expressing an odd, slightly facetious kind of hope, Goldberg said, “The American Jewish community has outmoded ideas of what Israel is — the Israel of today is not the scrappy country it once was.”

Avram Salkin, Michelle Lyon, Stacey Klein, Dorothy Salkin
The Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA feted Avram and Dorothy Salkin for their community activism and philanthropy during a gala event on Jan. 31. Students Stacey Klein and Michelle Lyon were also honored at the Beverly Hilton as young community leaders on the rise. (From left) Avram Salkin, Michelle Lyon, Stacey Klein and Dorothy Salkin. Photo by Franklin Berger

Food Stamp diet underscores need to aid the poor

I’ll be the first to admit that cooking isn’t my strong suit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal — as long as I’m not the person preparing it.

In fact, it’s come to be somewhat of a joke among my family and friends: If you’re hosting a holiday or other food-focused gathering and are looking for contributions, you can call Eric, and he’ll connect you to a deli, supermarket or restaurant conveniently located in your neighborhood.

And so it was with some trepidation that I signed up this summer for the Food Stamp Diet Challenge, a weeklong experiment in limiting my food budget to the amount provided by the federal food stamp allotment. With $21 per week, buying lunches and dinners out was clearly not going to work. I would have to conquer my low cooking self-esteem and make a trip to the grocery store.

What I found there will be little surprise to anyone. Eating on $3 per day — and doing it nutritiously in a way that would leave a person feeling satiated — was not just going to be a challenge. It was a near impossibility.

Most of my career has been spent in the halls of higher learning, and I decided to approach the project like any academic, relying on sound research before drawing my conclusions. I started with produce and quickly realized how foolish a choice that had been.

At $1.89 each, avocados were not only out of my budget, but they were more than 50 percent of what I was allowed to spend in an entire day. Red bell peppers, a particular favorite of mine, weighed in at $5.99 per pound, fine if that was all I wanted to eat for 48 hours. I thought it might be a good time to head to another section of the store.

Protein seemed like an important thing to have. I am careful about the meats I consume, high cholesterol being one of my more unfortunate genetic legacies. White meat chicken is about the only thing I’ll allow myself — but at $6.49 per pound for boneless, skinless breasts, the thigh fillets for almost half as much looked awfully tempting.

So, what could I buy? Beans. A lot of canned beans: garbanzos for 79 cents, black beans for 89 cents. And boxes of macaroni and cheese, though even there I was in for a bit of sticker shock. Kraft, a cornerstone of my childhood, went as high as 33 cents per ounce. Instead, I opted for the no-name box at the more sensible four cents per ounce.

The Food Stamp Diet Challenge impacted more than just my bottom line. It was physically debilitating and emotionally exhausting. I was lethargic and found that I lacked my usual enthusiasm for getting through the day. I had difficulty reading, writing, communicating — doing anything other than anticipating (and, in some ways, dreading) my next meal.

Every year at the High Holy Days, I try to find words that connect each of us to our liturgy and tradition, words that educate us about the ways we are commanded by our texts and our faith to lead a prophetic call for change. This year, on the heels of my Food Stamp Diet Challenge experience, I have no words. Because, for the first time, I realize in an immediate and personal way that words alone will not provide sustenance or bring justice to millions of families whose only crime is getting stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Words without action are just words — lovely but as empty as the stomachs of 35 million Americans facing hunger.

These Holy Days are a time for reflection. But for reflection to mean something, it must be followed by change. This year, there is something we can all do to make an immediate difference: Ask our senators and House members to support full extension of the nutrition title in the Farm Bill now before Congress.

It is the Farm Bill that authorizes food stamps and other key federal nutrition programs, without which millions of hungry families would simply not be able to get by. A diverse group of California politicians has already taken the challenge.

We have reached the threshold of another new year. Let us pledge, you and I, to cross it together, committed to a future in which food stamps, the majority of which go to feed children, require neither a diet nor a challenge. Hungry people deserve better. We all do.

G’mar hatima tova.

H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D. is president of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and is chair of the National Anti-Hunger Organizations.

Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving

When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there.

“You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets,” he said. “I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them.”

One of the reasons Israelis didn’t turn out in droves to the rally — aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat — is that Israelis aren’t used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.

“The Israelis here are Israeli; it’s clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports,” Danoch said, explaining why they don’t feel the need to be pro-active. “It’s like Israel’s TV slogan: Chayim B’America, Margishim Yisrael. (“Living in America, Feeling Israel.”)

Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.

Israelis aren’t the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.

Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.

In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“There is a word, but it means giving away,” he said. “In general, people don’t give.”

Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.

“The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself,” he said. “It’s not a question of being bad or good — it’s a different attitude.”

Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people’s needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.

Naty Saidoff “The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community,” said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. “They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service.”

“The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide,” he said. “In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out.”

Saidoff didn’t let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces “for selfish reasons,” but had him volunteer in community service here instead.

The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.

“The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done — they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.

“You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community.”

Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.

“They were involved within themselves … their synagogues and organizations, and their own people,” said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. “As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel.”

In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities — Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian — to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.

“The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks,” said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.

“It’s a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money.”

They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.

The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. “The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot,” Delshad said.

For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.

“They started becoming successful in their businesses and it’s a way not to forget their brothers in Israel,” said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money.

Scary Hummus

On this side of the Mediterranean, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out less like a war and a more like a team sport.

That is to say, we don’t pick up arms — thank God — we pick sides. And we follow our side, and root for it, thinking somehow our cheers will help push it closer to the end zone.

Just as with professional sports, most Angelenos aren’t even spectators — they couldn’t care less.

A smaller but substantial number pay close attention only during wars and crises — the equivalent of those of us who only tune into sports games during the finals and bowl games.

An even smaller number — mostly Jews and Muslims — follow developments in the news and online, send money and grill candidates. These are the season ticket holders.

And then there are the die-hard fans, the ones who write one letter to the editor per day, organize the rallies and shout down the opposing sides. In sporting terms, these are the guys who strip off their shirts when it’s snowing to show off their chests painted in team colors.

Last Sunday, it turns out, was Game Day in Los Angeles. I counted no fewer than six events related to the Middle East, stretching from Pacific Palisades to Simi Valley. I set out to go to three of them, because sometimes the spectators can tell you more about the game than the players.

First stop was UCLA, where I dropped in on a daylong seminar titled, “Israel, Zionism and Apartheid: The Case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” Inside a Humanities Building lecture hall, about 100 activists spent a day reiterating why Israel is awful.

I arrived just as a lunch break was finishing up. A man was inspecting a container of hummus. “It says ‘Sabra,’ but it’s from America,” he reassured a participant. “We were really scared when we saw the label.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that two years ago a majority share of the Queens, N.Y.-based Sabra was bought by Strauss-Elite, an Israeli conglomerate.

Before the next speaker came on, another middle-age man urged audience members to buy bottles of olive oil available for purchase among the stacks of anti-Israel brochures outside the hall.

“The land and sky of Palestine brings you this gift of extra-virgin olive oil,” he said.

I stayed for one speaker, Dr. Laila al-Marayati, an American-born OB-GYN whose slide show depicted miserable conditions faced by Palestinian women and children in Gaza and the West Bank.

The audience — mostly middle age or older and white — never tired of hissing and tsk-tsking whenever the speaker accused Israel of some heinous act.

Then Al-Marayati told the audience that she was using an Israeli Jewish lawyer and the Israeli legal system to challenge the government’s decision to bar her from entering.

“Israel is a democracy,” she said.

Someone in the audience groaned.

The fans had come to cheer their team and their team only.

On my way out, I bought a bottle of extra-virgin Zatoun olive oil. I’m a nonpartisan lover of olive oil. The saleswoman told me part of the purchase price goes to plant olive trees in Palestine.

“Just like the Jewish National Fund,” I said.

“Huh?” she said.

When it comes to food and fundraising techniques, I guess, we are all one.

Across town in the Fairfax district, Israeli music blared across the parking lot of Shalhevet High School. Sixteen-year-old Maxine Renzer had organized an Israel Street Fair there. Kids and teachers at the observant Jewish school walked from booth to booth, collecting pro-Israel pamphlets, tossing balls at a dunk tank, buying pro-Israel T-shirts and falafel. Renzer expected to donate about $4,000 in revenue from the event to Israel-based charities.

This wasn’t a place for argument or debate, just a way to support and celebrate. The festivities felt at once connected to, and also a world away from, that day’s news of missiles dropping in Sderot and civil war in Gaza.

I skipped my plan to drive out to a conference on Islamic radicalism in Simi Valley and instead headed to the Beverly Center, where Pups for Peace was holding its event.

Founded five years ago in Los Angeles, the group trains dogs to detect explosives for use in Israel. The idea is to prevent terror attacks before they happen, saving lives and reducing overall violence in the Mideast.

The group took over an upscale furniture showroom. Guests dined on fancy hors d’oeuvres and sipped wine and mingled with distinguished guests.

One of the dogs, a German shepherd named Rex, went through the crowd on a search for mock explosives, He couldn’t stop wagging his tail. “To them this is a game,” Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Faulk explained.

There is a sense that all these gatherings are, well, sport. We gather with like-minded friends and celebrate or defend our agreement to ourselves. What a shame that in a country where Jews and Muslims do live peaceably together, we find so little reason to work together on Middle East issues.

Dialogue between pro-Israel Jews and pro-Palestinian Arabs in this town has broken down to the degree that we’re ensconced with our own teammates, when in America, of all places, we needn’t be.

Only one of the day’s events tried to bridge the gap — a musical concert with Arab and Jewish musicians at UCLA organized by the Yuval Ron Ensemble.

Otherwise, everybody had broken up according to their own teams — and so it goes.

I got home and turned on the “Sopranos.” Anthony Junior, the suicidal spawn of the great mobster Tony, was in his therapist’s office, explaining why his class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depressed him.

“People blowing each other up because their God says they’re allowed to live in a certain patch of f—–g sand,” Anthony moans, “and then other people’s God says they’re supposed to live there.”

I dished out a plate of scary Sabra hummus, then poured some of the Palestinian olive oil on it. I swiped a piece of pita bread through it.

Guess what? It tasted really good, just like extra-virgin Israeli olive oil.

‘Forgotten’ Jews Address Injustice

Addressing a conference of Jews predominately from the Middle
East and North Africa, keynote speaker Stan Urman delivered a quip that
underscored the sentiments of many audience members.

“When I first heard about your group, JIMENA [Jews
Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa], and knowing that it originated
from California, I thought it was wonderful that there was a group of Hispanic
people concerned about the plight of Jewish refugees,” said Urman.

Urman, the executive director of the Center for Middle East
Peace and Economic Cooperation, followed his humorous opening remarks with some
pointed remarks Sunday at JIMENA’s conference held at San Francisco’s Reform
Congregation Sherith Israel.

“Why have this discussion now?” Urman asked rhetorically.
“The answer is because the Jewish community is appalled by the ignorance of the
world to the facts of the situation, and because as the living witnesses to
history pass on, it becomes even more pressing that we address this historical

“Whenever the ‘conflict’ in the Middle East is addressed,
Palestinian and Arab refugees are always referred to,” Urman continued, “but
where are the stories of Jews from Arab lands whose property has been
confiscated? Those stories are rarely told.”

The conference, “Forgotten Refugees: Jews Expelled From Arab
Countries,” was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, JIMENA and
the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation. Support
came from the World Jewish Congress and other local and national Jewish

About 300 people attended the four-hour event, hearing and
sharing testimonials detailing imprisonment at internment camps, mass
deportations, rape and ethnic cleansing. The stories were interspersed throughout
the conference, which also featured panels on community activism, the role of
the United Nations in the Middle East and a keynote address by Algerian-born
Jew Eric Benhamou, the chair of 3Com Corp.

Urman went on to debunk what he considered to be a slipshod
analogy between the two groups of refugees. “Israel, in its infancy, absorbed
650,000 Jews from the Diaspora, whereas the Arab countries, with the exception
of Jordan, turned their back on the Palestinians and used them as a political
weapon for the past 55 years.

“There is no symmetry, and no comparison.”

Urman, a Canadian Jew of European ancestry, offered some of
the guiding principles of the conference. He recalled the “rich heritage of
Jewish culture in Arab lands,” and advocated “exposing the myth that there is a
greater number of Palestinian refugees than Jewish refugees from Arab lands,”
citing the “state-mandated hate that Jewish residents of Arab lands were
subjected to.”

Urman also called for financial restitution to Jewish
refugees exiled from Arab countries and insisted that any Palestinian-Israeli
accords include discussion of that restitution.

Yitzhak Santis, the director of Middle East affairs for the
JCRC, echoed Urman’s comments, adding that a movement to redress the grievances
of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is just beginning to gain momentum.

“There really cannot be true justice and reconciliation in
the Middle East, and between Israel and the Palestinians until this issue is
fully addressed and made part of the final settlement equation,” Santis said.

Spinning a joke about the prevailing Jewish paradigm, JIMENA
co-chair Joseph Abdel Wahed said, “There aren’t too many Goldbergs or
Goldsteins here this afternoon, but there are plenty of Semhas and Wahbas.

“We’d like to change the perception of the organized Jewish
community,” said the Egyptian-born Wahed. “After World War II, the focus was on
[the fact that] European Jews had been slaughtered, and rightly so.

“But there were hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands
who also lost their lives and property. Our story isn’t very well-known, and
now is the time to finally tell it to the world.”

For more information on JIMENA, visit