November 17, 2018

IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet on Unifying American-Jewish Community

Shoham Nicolet

More than a decade ago, Israeli-born Shoham Nicolet arrived in Los Angeles with a dream. A former lieutenant in an elite Israel Defense Forces unit and alumni of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Nicolet along with a group of Israeli-American businesspeople in Los Angeles – wanted to establish a prominent Israeli-American organization to serve the Jewish-American community and foster deeper connections to the Jewish state. Amid countless rejections, it long seemed like a pipe dream. Nicolet joined with this group of business leaders to found the organization, becoming its first professional staff member.

Eleven years later and Nicolet is the CEO of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the largest Israeli-American organization in the United States. The Journal caught up with Nicolet before his organization’s national conference in South Florida at the end of the month, to discuss the Pittsburgh shooting, what Americans can learn from Israelis in the fight against anti-Semitism, and what he views as obstacles to unity in the Jewish-American community. 

Jewish Journal: First, I wanted to give you a chance to respond to what happened in Pittsburgh, on your own behalf, and on behalf of the IAC. 

Shoham Nicolet: The most important thing is our hearts and minds are with the community. That’s before anything else. These are members of our community that lost their lives just because they were Jews. It shook all of us at the IAC. It doesn’t matter where we live or where we’re from. We’re a part of this Jewish-American community. We live in a new reality right now.  The only way to deal with this new situation is to become united and come together as one voice. That goes beyond politics and denominations. We also have to be proactive. We have to find new ways to fight anti-Semitism with everything the law allows us here as citizens. We need to work with law enforcement and elected officials and make sure anti-Semitism in 2018 and in the future is unacceptable. 

JJ: How will what happened affect the tenor and themes of the IAC’s upcoming conference? 

SN: It’s going to be there. But the conference was already planned. With that said, we’re looking at anti-Semitism and ways to combat it all the time. So we’re covering the same topics that we planned to but we’re just going to be even more intricate and more focused. 

JJ: What is the main focus of the conference? 

SN: It’s a cliché, but we have to stop talking about it and start doing it, which means bringing unity to the American-Jewish community. There are so many challenges that we, as a community, are facing right now. If anyone feels they can beat the challenges alone, they’re dead wrong. We have to do it as a coalition and that’s what the IAC is all about. We’ll have more than 3,000 people representing a very wide spectrum of political views, socioeconomic and other different backgrounds, Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans from East and West. 

JJ: What are some of those challenges? 

SN: I think that right now if you ask me why I’m not going to sleep well at night, I think it’s the connection between Israel and the Jewish people, particularly the younger generation in the United States. The fact is that we see more and more communities that are stepping back from Israel. It’s not that they stop loving it, but they’re loving it with some conditions. My fear is that when you look at the next generation of Jewish Americans, if they’re not there for the Jewish state, it’s going to be in trouble. But we don’t have the privilege or the right to think we can give up on one or the other. We need to stop creating division and emphasizing the gaps between Israel and American Jews. 

JJ: What do you feel is creating those gaps?

SN: If you look at what happened after Pittsburgh, in articles in newspapers, the chief rabbinate of Israel, it was reported, didn’t mention the word “synagogue.” The narrative was that the chief rabbi didn’t accept that it was a synagogue because it was Conservative. But, of course, if you read the real quotes, there definitely is the word synagogue, and it’s mentioned that it’s not important what denomination of Jews these were. He said exactly the opposite of whatever was trying to be portrayed. This is counterproductive. It’s unfortunate that, in some cases, in some parts of our community, this is done to create division and damage. I don’t want it to be permanent damage. We need to focus on what brings people together, focus on shared values between Israel and Jewish Americans and the important benefits Israel provides to Jewish-Americans. 

JJ: What do the Israeli and Israeli-American communities have to offer with regard to discussions around anti-Semitism here in the United States? 

SN: We’re bringing our background as Israelis and Israeli-Americans to the discussion. We bring knowledge that exists in Israel on how to deal with threats that Israel is dealing with constantly, unfortunately. The situation here reflects many of the same challenges of the daily reality in Israel. This is an opportunity to leverage the fact that we have a Jewish state and to use this knowledge and this energy in this time to fight anti-Semitism in the United States. 

JJ: You’ve spoken about a generational disconnect. Will the conference have a younger feel? 

SN: The reality is the conference is a young conference. The average age is 37 and we have people coming from campuses across the nation with over 100 high-school and middle-school students. They’re going to feel like they’re in Israel, like they’re in the center of their people. We’ll be creating discussions around issues in a very Israeli way, where people will debate often and loudly, but all in a clear context — under the umbrella of love and connection to Israel. 

JJ: Are there any speakers you’re particularly excited about? 

SN: I don’t want to focus on one speaker in particular. You have the Minister of Justice, the Speaker of the Knesset, and you have an Israel Prize winner. There will be Democratic and Republican elected official members of Congress, many people from the high-tech world. But going back 11 years to when we just started IAC in Los Angeles, no one wanted to speak with us. The Federation said your place is in Israel, not here. They looked at us as a problem, as a bug in the system.

JJ: What changed? 

SN: We just said the same thing for 11 years. We’re here only to give to the Jewish-American community. Now, we have what seemed an impossible scenario with all these prominent speakers. This is what happens when you don’t look at issues and just look at the vision of where you want to be.  

IAC Organizes Soccer Game in Response to Argentina’s Cancellation

Photo courtesy of the Israeli-American Council.

On June 6, Argentina canceled an exhibition soccer match with Israel due to threats of violence from anti-Israel protestors. In response, the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) Las Vegas chapter organized a friendly soccer game between Israeli-Americans and Argentinian-Americans on June 17.

According to a press release from the IAC, the game featured both countries’ flags and anthems. The Israelis defeated the Argentinians by a score of 6 to 4.

“All countries regularly host international sporting events in their capitals. It is sad that Israel remains the exception to the rule,” IAC Las Vegas Regional Director Noa Peri-Jensch said in a statement. “We are very proud of our Gvanim graduate, Itay Daddon, for stepping up and leading this project, and of Las Vegas Regional Council members Dr. Neville Pokroy, Dr. Adin Boldur, Ben Cohen and Tal Hackmey for helping to create more meaningful partnerships in our community.”

Daddon said in a statement: “Through organizing the friendly soccer game in Las Vegas, we can lead the way for other communities by tapping into sport’s vast and inspiring potential as a bridge-builder, rather than how it is used by the BDS movement as a tool for provoking tension and controversy.”

Annual IAC Festival Brings Israel to L.A. Park

It’s that time of year again when the Israeli-American Council (IAC) transforms a Los Angeles park into a miniature Israel.

The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 6 at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center at Rancho Park in West Los Angeles will be a day of live music, culture, food and community, under the banner of “70 Years of Zionism, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”

IAC board member Naty Saidoff, who, with his wife, Debbie, is a major sponsor of the festival, said the event will provide an opportunity for the Israeli-American community to expose American Jews to the Israeli way of life.

“We were incredibly lucky to grow up in a place like Israel, surrounded by our history, our heritage, and a rich and diverse culture,” Saidoff said. “Now that we live here, we want our fellow Americans who have embraced us so warmly to share in the experience of all the beauty that is the modern day miracle called Israel.”

More than 15,000 people are expected to turn out to this year’s festival, which will feature a performance by Israeli pop duo Static and Ben El; a Taglit Innovation Center, which educates attendees about the advances Israeli startup companies are making in the fields of science, medicine, agriculture, security, space and more; amusement park rides; a bar for young professionals; and a Pomegranate Sculpture Park — a community-based project that allowed artists, art enthusiasts and day school students to decorate 4-foot-high pomegranates.

As is the case every year, pro-Israel organization StandWithUs will lead a 1-mile Israeli solidarity march, titled “Salute to Israel Walk in Blue & White.” At 10 a.m., participants will meet at the festival’s entrance, walk east on Pico Boulevard toward the Simon Wiesenthal Center at Pico and Roxbury Drive, then head back to the festival.

“More than ever before, Israeli Americans are a living bridge between Israel and America.” — Shoham Nicolet

Additional highlights include the Tiger Squadron formation flyover at 3:20 p.m. The demonstration will kick off a ceremony featuring local elected officials and community leaders.

Meanwhile, glatt-kosher food, a kids stage, pony and camel rides, hands-on crafts, a Judaica shop and more will help people of all ages find something to enjoy at the annual celebration.

Ahead of the festival, the IAC is holding a photography competition on Instagram in which it will select and display at the festival 70 photos that best showcase Israel.

The Celebrate Israel festival is the largest program of the IAC, an umbrella organization for Israeli Americans that, with help from philanthropists such as Sheldon Adelson, has expanded to cities nationwide since its launch in 2007.

The IAC is a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that has 16 regional chapters. It serves the more than 500,000 Israeli-Americans living in the United States. It hosts the festival every year around Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, which this year fell on April 18.

This year’s festival is taking place in 15 locations across the country, including Colorado, Florida, Houston, Las Vegas and New Jersey, and coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Jewish state’s founding on May 14, 1948.

The Los Angeles festival is the biggest because it’s where the country’s largest Israeli-American contingent — approximately 250,000 people — lives.

The festival began as a community event at Woodley Park in the San Fernando Valley before growing into a mega-event on the Westside. A variety of Jewish organizations — including the Jewish Journal — participate. Many different segments of the local Jewish community turn out.

IAC co-founder and CEO Shoham Nicolet said the festivals bridge the gap between the Israeli-American and Jewish-American communities.

“We are thrilled to bring people together from across our coast-to-coast community to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, in the single largest celebration of this anniversary outside of Israel,” he said. “More than ever before, Israeli Americans are a living bridge between Israel and America, and within the Jewish and pro-Israel communities here in the United States, and these celebrations reflect that.”

The festival begins at noon and concludes at 7 p.m. Tickets at the door will cost $30. Children under 3 receive free admission. Parking is available at multiple sites. Visit for more information.

IAC Celebrates Israel’s 70th Birthday with Over 60 Members of Congress

Photo courtesy of the Israeli-American Council.

The Israeli-American Council (IAC) hosted a celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary on April 17 with over 60 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C.

According to a press release from the IAC, attendees included Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NY). Menendez spoke at the event and hailed the Israeli-American community for being “a living bridge between people in the United States and in one of our closest allies, Israel.”

“I am grateful for all that they do to communicate to fellow Americans and fellow Israelis the importance of a strong, vibrant partnership,” Menendez said.

Another senator who spoke at the event, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), echoed Menendez in stating that Israeli-Americans are “a critical link in our special relationship with Israel.”

It has been a big year for the IAC, given the recent passage of the Taylor Force Act, scores of anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) bills being passed in various states, raising over $16.5 million at their March gala.

“As we see from the incredible crowd of Democratic and Republican elected leaders here this afternoon, America’s alliance with Israel is an issue that can bring us together across party lines,” IAC chairman Adam Milstein said at the event.

Other notable attendees at the event included Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who donated $13 million to the IAC at the March gala.

Moving & Shaking: IAC Raises $16.5 million; Moonves Honored

From left: Yehoram Gaon, Haim Saban, Shawn Evenhaim, and Miriam and Sheldon Adelson attend the Israeli-American Council gala at the Beverly Hilton. Photo by Idan Ozeri-Tal.

Pro-Israel philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson announced a $13 million donation to the Israeli-American Council (IAC) during the organization’s 10th annual gala on March 18 at the Beverly Hilton.

The Adelsons’ pledge was by far the largest of the event, which raised more than $16.5 million. Additional donors included Haim Saban, who pledged $1 million.

“The IAC has achieved remarkable progress in advancing its historic mission,” Sheldon Adelson said in a statement. “We are deeply invested in the organization’s long-term success and its vision of a coast-to-coast community with Israel in its heart. This is an investment in the future generations of Jewish Americans and the State of Israel.”

An IAC Board of Directors statement issued in appreciation of the Adelsons’ generosity said the couple are “among the great Jewish leaders of our time.”

“Their bold vision, passionate leadership, and unmatched generosity have been an inspiration to all of us, and have propelled the IAC’s rapid growth and great success,” the IAC statement said. “We look forward to partnering with the Adelsons in the years ahead to further the rapid growth of our community and our donor base, working together to make a historic impact for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

The 10-year-old IAC is one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in the country.

IAC Chairman Adam Milstein told gala attendees that the IAC owed its growth to a “strong nationwide movement … rooted in our unequivocal love and support for our Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.”

Keynote speaker Rabbi Avraham Infeld said that 250 years ago, Jews understood that being Jewish wasn’t necessarily being part of a religion but being a part of a people. Today, he said, many Jews view Judaism as solely a religion, to the detriment of the community at large.

“We are living in a period in which the concept of a Jewish people has almost been forgotten,” Infeld said.

The gala featured a performance by Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon and a video message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’re winning,” Netanyahu said in the video. “Israel is winning. Israel has never been stronger.”

Aaron Bandler, Contributing Writer

From left: Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein present the Pico Shul Couple of the Year Award to Lemor and Shuki Greer. Photo by Ryan Torok.

Pico-Robertson Orthodox congregation Pico Shul held its annual fundraising dinner, The Dinner Party, on March 21 at The Mark.

During the charity soiree, Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein presented its Pico Shul Couple of the Year award to Lemor and Shuki Greer, who have played an integral role in growing the Pico Shul community.

“Pico Shul is more than just a place to daven, a place to pray,” Lemor Greer said upon accepting the award. “It really is a community, a group of people who have come together with a similar mindset who dedicate themselves both to being religious and being proud of their Judaism, and also being open and accepting to everybody.”

Additional honorees included Legacy Trustee Jeremy Kagan, a film and television director and Pico Shul supporter.

Before honoring Kagan, Bookstein showed a video montage featuring clips from many of the director’s films, including “The Chosen,” a 1981 drama adapted from the Chaim Potok novel of the same name. Bookstein said Kagan’s films have tackled some of the greatest issues facing the American Jewish community in recent history.

The Booksteins also recognized Neuriel Shore, a Jewish communal professional who led the congregation’s men’s club for several years.

Pico Shul, located in a rented Pico-Robertson storefront, attracts observant young professionals, many of whom are returning to Judaism after years of leading nonpracticing lives.

In addition to leading Pico Shul, Rabbi Bookstein runs programs that seek to serve Jews where they are, rather than waiting for Jews to come to them. These efforts include Shabbat Tent, which arranges for Shabbat services at unlikely settings, including music and film festivals.

“[Bookstein] goes to places where there is no Judaism and puts on Judaism in all these different events,” said Ramtin Rafiee, who works in real estate and attended the dinner with his wife, Sherene. “He shows people you can be Jewish and have fun.”

The event drew about 150 attendees, including shul supporters Cheston Mizel and Josh Kaplan, and congregants Fabian Lijtmaer, Ronit Aranoff and Marcus Freed.

Beverly Hills Synagogue Rabbi Pini Dunner (left) presents the “Gibor Yisrael” Award to Ernie Goldberger, a Holocaust survivor who fought for Israel during the-then fledgling country’s War of Independence. Photo courtesy of Beverly Hills Synagogue.

Celebrating Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday, Beverly Hills Synagogue Senior Rabbi Pini Dunner on March 18 presented Ernie Goldberger with the “Gibor Yisrael” (“Hero of Israel”) Award, in recognition of his heroism and bravery during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

The presentation was made during the synagogue’s annual fundraiser, which drew more than 250 guests to the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Goldberger, 90, a Holocaust survivor born in Romania, arrived in Palestine in 1944, and the Palmach recruited him in 1946. He supplied Israel’s defenders with munitions before an injury prompted him to move to the United States. Since coming to the U.S., Goldberger has earned a living in the jewelry business and supported numerous synagogues and charities.

The evening event drew more than 250 guests, who watched a newly produced mini-documentary about the honoree’s extraordinary life.

Speakers included Simon Wiesenthal Center founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Beverly Hills Synagogue is a Modern Orthodox Zionist congregation that has served the Beverly Hills Jewish community since 1991.

From left: Sinai Temple Rabbi Nicole Guzik, longtime Sinai Temple member Malcolm Cosgrove, Sinai Temple Cantor and honoree Marcus Feldman, and Sinai Temple Men’s Club President Mark Haloossim celebrate at the Sinai Temple Men’s Club Burning Bush gala. Photo courtesy of Sinai Temple.

The Sinai Temple Men’s Club held its 31st annual Burning Bush gala, honoring Sinai Temple Rabbi Erez Sherman and Cantor Marcus Feldman, on March 18.

The Burning Bush Awards are presented annually to men and women of the Sinai community who represent strong Jewish values, unwavering support of Israel and a deep commitment to giving back. A Sinai Temple spokesperson described this year’s recipients as “pillars of Sinai Temple … deeply defined by their Jewish identities.”

Sherman’s award was presented to him by his colleague and longtime friend, Sinai Temple Rabbi Jason Fruithandler.

Fruithandler spoke of Sherman’s unwavering commitment to both his family and his synagogue, where Sherman’s wife, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, is also on the clergy team. He described Sherman as Sinai’s “Yes Man,” always willing to solve problems and make things happen.

In presenting Feldman with his award. Guzik highlighted the cantor’s ability to infuse joy and a love of Judaism, through song, into everyone he comes across.

The evening also raised more than $100,000 for two critical Jewish organizations, Beit T’Shuvah and the Israel Air Force Center Foundation.

Sinai Men’s Club members Farideh and Farshad Rafii co-chaired the gala.

Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) honoree Leslie Moonves (left) and SWC dinner chairman Jon Feltheimer pose at the SWC’s annual national tribute dinner. Photo by Benjamin Shmikler / ©ABImages.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) drew more than 800 guests to its annual gala at the Beverly Hilton on March 22, which raised $2.6 million to fund the center’s worldwide battles against anti-Semitism, threats to Israel’s existence and the rising wave of right-wing racism swelling in Europe.

Speakers who addressed those threats were Rabbi Marvin Hier, SWC’s founder and dean; SWC’s Executive Director Meyer H. May; and Hollywood studio executive and film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. The latter shared master of ceremonies duties with television host James Corden.

The recipient of the evening’s top honor, the 2018 Humanitarian Award, went to Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS Corp.

Moonves is a semi-distant relative of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who was honored posthumously with SWC’s Medal of Valor.

Among other entertainment industry leaders in attendance were Paramount CEO Jim Gianpulos, NBC Universal’s Ron Meyer, producer Brian Grazer, producer Burt Sugarman with his wife, Mary Hart, and the original Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter.

Another Medal of Valor winner was Raheel Raza, a Pakistan-born Islamic woman who delivered a surprisingly gutsy speech about her work in opposing her country’s and her religion’s male domination and their shared hostility toward Israel.

Raza noted that, while the Muslim establishment has ranked her as the sixth most-hated Islamic activist in the world, she was striving for the No. 1 spot.

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The App That BDS Fears

Photo from Pixabay.

Pro-Israel advocates who are fed up with the rhetoric from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement now have a tool they can use to fight BDS: the Act.IL app.

The app, a joint project by the Israeli-American Council (IAC), Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and Maccabee Task Force, notifies users when Israel is being criticized online and provides them with the opportunity to fight back against it. For instance, the app notified the pro-Israel community of an image posted in a pro-BDS Facebook group that compared Zionists to insects that Facebook initially refused to remove when someone reported it.

“Within a few hours, hundreds of people sent this report to Facebook and by the morning, they said this post was removed,” IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet told the Journal. “This is an example where you have an individual trying to act, the power of individual is very limited. When you have crowds and audiences walking together, a community suddenly becomes a lot more effective.”

Another example of the app’s usage was when it suggested that people criticize a business that wouldn’t serve Israelis on Facebook, causing the business’s rating to decline from a 4.6 star rating to a 1.4 rating out of 5.

“The cutting edge idea is really to have a connected community that is all across the U.S. and in Israel that is fighting for Israel,” said Nicolet.

The app has already made enough waves to cause BDS to mention in a recent fundraising post on Facebook how the app’s “Situation Room” disrupted a pro-BDS webinar.

“This ‘Situation Room’ was funded by right-wing mogul and avid Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, a man who has pledged $50 million to fight BDS on US campuses alone,” the post read. “Paid trolls littered our accounts with vile racism, racial incitement, Islamophobic and baseless anti-Palestinian propaganda.”

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan also gave the app a shout-out back in February.

“I am initiating an international effort to unite Israel’s supporters around the globe and provide them with a platform that strengthens their activities, with tools that will help all of us fight hatred together, and with resources to spread the truth,” said Erdan. “As part of the campaign, we will provide Israel’s supporters with videos, graphics, articles and content. Along with civil society initiatives such as the application developed by Israeli-American Council (IAC) and IDC students, we believe that this will be a game-changer in defending Israel online and around the world.”

The current version of the app has a 4.5 out of 5 star rating in iTunes.

Nicolet credited the app’s success to the fact there is such a robust, organic grassroots activism in Israel and the U.S. dedicated to defending the Jewish state.

“This is exactly where online technologies can really build bridges and really close the gap between Israel and the U.S. and the Jewish people in both sides of the ocean,” said Nicolet.

Moving & Shaking: Seinfeld Headlines Ball, Iranian-American Jewish panel and Israeli American Council National Conference

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (fourth from left) appears at the American Friends of Magen David Adom (MDA) Red Star Ball with (from left) MDA first responders Nati Regev, Rivka Or, Aharon Adler, Israel Weingarten and Mohammed "Chamudi" Arrabi. Photo by Michelle Mivzari

Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to transform a Beverly Hilton ballroom into an intimate comedy club.

Performing a half-hour set to conclude the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) Red Star Ball on the evening of Oct. 30, the comedic legend commanded the large, candlelit room like he was headlining the Improv.

Seinfeld opened the evening with a few minutes of material — joking about how Gentiles attend events for the alcohol, Jews for the rolls — but he promised he would return at the end of the night. When he came back onstage after 10 p.m., the funnyman captured both the mood of the fundraiser and the comic sensibility he is famous for.

“It’s been a beautiful night of generosity …,” he said. “Now, let’s get back to complaining.”

The gala raised pledges of more than $18 million, a record for an AFMDA event anywhere in the country, according to an event spokesperson. It also spotlighted the life-saving work of Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s ambulance, blood-services and disaster-relief organization that serves as emergency medical first-responders for the state’s more than 8 million people. MDA is mandated by the Israeli government to serve in this role, but it is not a government agency.

Of those in attendance, Humanitarian of the Year Honorees Sheldon and Miriam Adelson pledged $12 million to the organization, and Maurice Kanbar, creator of SKYY Vodka, pledged $5 million.

“My heart is in Israel,” Sheldon Adelson said. “And Israel is in my heart.”

Renee and Meyer Luskin received a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their support for the arts and education in Greater Los Angeles.

Next Generation Award winner Nikita Kahn — an actress, model and animal rights advocate — credited gala co-chair Dina Leeds with instilling in her the importance of supporting Israel.

“Her passion for Israel is contagious,” Kahn said of Leeds, who co-chaired the evening with her husband, Fred.

Additional speakers included Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and the Leeds’ daughter, Alisa. The latter highlighted the contributions of MDA to Israel. She has volunteered with the organization and called it a model for peace as it treats patients regardless of religion or ethnicity.

A number of MDA medics attended the gala, including Rivka Or, a senior emergency medical technician; and Mohammed “Chamudi” Arrabi, a gay, Muslim medic.

“It makes me happy when I help somebody,” Or said.

Also in attendance were comedian Elon Gold; Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, of the faith-based rehabilitation organization Aleph Institute; USC Hillel Executive Director Bailey London; Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa; and Israeli reality TV star Yossi Dina.

From left: Jesse Sharf, Kam Babaoff, Aliza Karney Guren, John Ghermezian and Kamyar Shabani participate in 30 Years After’s “The Builders of Los Angeles.” Photo by Jasmine Foroutan

30 Years After, the Iranian-American Jewish civic engagement organization, held its first in a series of events celebrating its 10th anniversary. The event, titled “The Builders of Los Angeles,” took place on Oct. 24 at the PH Day Club – Luxury Penthouse in West Hollywood and brought together a panel of prominent real estate developers and philanthropists.

The panel included Kam Babaoff, managing director of Ensemble Investments; Aliza Karney Guren, CEO of Karney Properties; John Ghermezian, chief business officer of Mall of America; and Kamyar Shabani, principal of Optimus Properties and a member of the 30 Years After advisory board. Jesse Sharf, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, moderated.

The panelists discussed their careers, the real estate industry, their passion for philanthropy and the Jewish community, and how their Jewish identities influence their philanthropy and businesses.

“People think that bad people get ahead in business, but people actually like doing business with good and philanthropic people,” Sharf said in response to an audience question. “It gets you further.”

When the panelists were asked what compelled them to be philanthropic, Babaoff responded: “My mom and dad were my role models. Growing up in Iran, our house was like Grand Central Station. People who needed help were always coming through, whether for money or dispute resolution. It is our duty and responsibility to give back, and giving back isn’t just giving money.”

“Money isn’t satisfying, but philanthropy is,” Ghermezian added. “A cause gives you a reason to continue working hard.”

About 250 people attended the event, including former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad; Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, and 30 Years After co-founder Sam Yebri.

In an interview, 30 Years After Executive Director Shanel Melamed said she was proud of how the program has helped provide a space for Persian Jews.

“This decade of engagement and leadership training has led to a comprehensive, emerging generation of Iranian-Jewish leaders who are equipped and motivated to contribute to, and lead, Los Angeles,” Melamed said. “We’re proud to be the central organization empowering Iranian-American Jews to be impactful members of society, and we have even greater goals for the next 10 years. We welcome everyone to join our exciting and growing movement.”

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

Diego Cartagena, vice president of legal programs at Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek

Bet Tzedek, a pro bono legal aid agency, has named Diego Cartagena as its next vice president of legal programs.

Cartagena succeeds Gus May, who became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in August, and will report directly to Bet Tzedek CEO Jessie Kornberg.

“This is a good day for Bet Tzedek and a great day for the thousands of clients that depend on us for a fair chance and a better life,” Kornberg said in a statement announcing Cartagena’s appointment.  Diego exemplifies what is best about our mission: an audacious commitment to push the bounds of what seems possible and deliver on our pledge to deliver equal justice for all.”

Cartagena’s responsibilities will include managing “the continued growth of Bet Tzedek’s community services,” according to the announcement. He has worked at Bet Tzedek since 2012, serving as the organization’s pro bono director.

“I look forward to working with longstanding and new community partners, pro bono supporters, and sister legal services agencies to continue to build on Bet Tzedek’s incredible history of protecting the rights of those most vulnerable by building innovative programs and coalitions that are responsive to the evolving community landscape,” Cartagena said.

Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to the Jewish Journal’s David Suissa at the Israeli American Council National Conference. Photo by FPerry Bindelglass

The Israeli American Council (IAC) National Conference attracted a record number of attendees this year — about 2,500 — when it was held from Nov. 3-6 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“We have to make sure that America is pro-Israel regardless of who is in Congress and who is in the White House,” Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said at the event, which examined Jewish and Israeli identity, Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people and cutting-edge innovative ideas in education, technology and community building.

Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer also appeared and described President Donald Trump’s recent speech criticizing the Iran deal as “the second-best day since I have been ambassador.”

Additional speakers included U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who participated in an interview with Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa; diplomat and author Dennis Ross; IAC Chairman Adam Milstein; and Miriam Shepher, an IAC national council member from Los Angeles. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, sat for a conversation with IAC board member and chairman emeritus Shawn Evenhaim.

The IAC is an umbrella organization with 16 chapters across the country, including in Los Angeles. Since 2007, the organization has prided itself on investing in programs that assist the Israeli-American community.

From left: Imam Abdullah Antepli, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa and Yossi Klein Halevi participate in a discussion titled “Enemies, A Love Story.” Photo courtesy of Beth Jacob Congregation

An Oct. 29 discussion at Beth Jacob Congregation, titled “Enemies, A Love Story: A New Way Forward for Jewish-Muslim Relations,” featured a formerly self-proclaimed extremist Jew and a formerly anti-Semitic Muslim discussing Muslim-Jewish relations. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and leadership institute for Jewish thought, organized the discussion.

Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa moderated the discussion between Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli, co-directors of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, which, according to, “invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood.”

Halevi and Antepli spoke with compassion and conviction about how they want to see the program work now and in the future. Their remarks often drew applause from the approximately 250 people who attended, including Beth Jacob Rabbi Kalman Topp.

Ginger Vick contributed to this report

Larger Than Life children and volunteers attend the 14th annual Larger Than Life gala dinner at the JW Marriott L.A Live. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

Larger Than Life–L.A. Family, a nonprofit affiliated with the Israel-based Larger Than Life organization, in October brought to Los Angeles from Israel 38 youths with cancer for a 10-day dream vacation.

The youths, ages 10-18, enjoyed Southern California theme parks, rode ATVs, sailed on a yacht and partied at a gala dinner downtown at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A Live on Oct. 29. It was the 14th annual trip organized by Larger Than Life.

At the gala, approximately 750 guests watched a video about two friends, May Gurfinkel and Noa Tzemach, who both died months ago after battling cancer for two years. The two became close after visiting Los Angeles in 2015 on a Larger Than Life vacation.

“Noa started as a mentor to May, and they became one soul. They went together to the very end, talking about things that we will never, ever be able to understand,” said Gurfinkel’s father, Golan, who traveled from Israel for the event. May Gurfinkel died in July.

“I used to be the one who gave others money and a helping hand, and I thought I could handle this by myself, but it simply wasn’t possible,” he said. “We needed all the help we could get. Without Larger Than Life, your generosity and help, we wouldn’t be able to make it. The Larger Than Life dream trip gave May hope and the best friends ever.”

The event raised more than $1 million, including $2,000 raised by the youths themselves.

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Israeli Arabs Break Their Silence At Israeli American Council Event

Screenshot from Facebook.

A group of Israeli Arabs spoke at Israeli American Council (IAC) Los Angeles event at American Jewish University on Sunday evening explaining how their life experiences in Israel debunk the notion that Israel is an apartheid nation.

The event, titled Arabs Breaking The Silence, kicked off with Adam Milstein, the chairman of the IAC’s board of directors, explaining that anti-Semitism has been on the rise over the past 30 years cloaked in anti-Zionist rhetoric. Such rhetoric has spawned movements calling for protests against Israel.

“Every citizen is being affected by the boycotts,” said Milstein, noting people of every creed in Israel lose jobs as a result of the boycotts.

Milstein added that Israel “is the best place for any minority in the Middle East” and that the minorities “are the most affected by the boycotts.”

Jonathan Elkhoury, the minorities coordinator for the Reservists on Duty in Israel, followed Milstein by explaining that Reservists on Duty was founded by members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) who seek to dispel the myths promulgated by the likes of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“We are bringing …reservists from the IDF to colleges across the states,” said Elkhoury, pointing out that they aim to counter events on campuses like Apartheid Week.

Elkhoury proceeded to show a video of Reservists on Duty confronting the anti-Zionist groups on UC Irvine in May 2017 in which the anti-Zionist protesters hail the intifada and accuse Israel of “genocide.” However, when the Reservists on Duty began asking penetrating questions that disrupted their narrative, the anti-Zionist movement leaders told their members not to engage with them and even cussed out the Reservists on Duty.

“We need to be there in every place,” said Elkhoury.

The next speaker was Dema Taya, an Arab Muslim who has defended Israel on Arab media. Taya recalled how she learned to accept differences with others when she lived with British family for three years while in school, and that Israel is in a fact a country that is tolerant of these differences. She referred to Israel as “a city of love” where “nobody is above the law” and “you can express your opinion without anybody bothering you.”

And yet, some Arabs are irked by Taya’s outspoken defense of Israel.

“Some Arabs open their mouth and start saying you are cheating and you are not a good person… just because I’m saying the truth,” said Taya.

Taya added that some Arabs called her a traitor to Islam for defending Israel.

“Who gives you the right to start talking, ‘You are going to hell’, ‘you are going to Heaven?’” said Taya, pointing out that only God decides that.

Taya refuses to back down in face of such criticism.

“They are attacking me because I’m a woman and in their ideology they think women are weak,” said Taya.

Taya pointed out that many countries are starting to realize how Israel can be beneficial to them, as medicine, agriculture, water and innovation in general are thriving in the Jewish state. Israel gives medical aid to those who have been harmed by the Syrian conflict and those in Gaza that come to their hospitals.

Following Taya was Ram Asad, a Druze man who used to be an Israeli combat soldier.  Asad explained that Israel was the first country to recognize the Druze as a free and independent people and they eventually formed an agreement with the Israeli government to serve in the IDF.

Asad’s father and five of his uncles served in the IDF as paramilitary troopers and his father decided to establish “The Druze Sons Trail Race” to honor the memory of fallen Druze soldiers.

Asad is now currently a student at Haifa University, and he told the audience that he doesn’t have any friends in Israel because he has “only brothers because we love each other.”

The next speaker was Mohammad Kabiya, a strategic IDF consultant who is an Israeli Bedouin. According to Kabiya, there are “thousands of Beduins serving in the army.” Kabiya was the only one in his Coptic Christian high school who said that he wanted to serve in IDF, although he ended up serving in the Israeli Air Force.

Kabiya noted that the Israeli Air Force’s “mission was to save lives” and that they would take Palestinians from Gaza to get treated at Israeli hospitals.

Kabiya also used to work at Israeli checkpoints, and pointed out that there are 80,000 Palestinians working Israel legally and 150,000 working there illegally.

Israel and America are alike in terms of their support of free speech, but Kabiya has noticed one difference between the two countries in that regard.

“We in Israel have more free speech on campuses,” said Kabiya.

Elkhoury spoke again and shared his story. Elkhoury was originally born in Lebanon, but he and his family were forced to flee after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

“They [Hezbollah] started taking soldiers from the South Lebanon Army,” said Elkhoury, noting that Hezbollah hold them captive and even throw them off buildings.

Elkhoury’s father had served in the South Lebanon Army, so he fled to Israel while the remainder of Elkhoury’s family stayed behind. But it eventually grew unsafe for them in Lebanon, so they fled to Israel. It was difficult for Elkhoury to adapt there at first, since they weren’t accepted by the Arab community for leaving Lebanon and they weren’t Jewish, but Elkhoury has assimilated into Israeli society and even did national service for two years.

“I’m proud to say I’m Lebanese, but I’m Israeli,” said Elkhoury. “I’m Christian. I’m part of the people of Israel.”

Elkhoury then showed a video of all kinds of people – Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc. – eating food at Mahane Yehuda Market, the point being that people of all religions and backgrounds were able to enjoy food together at an Israeli market, something that would not be happening if Israel were an apartheid state.

During the question and answer period, Elkhoury pointed out that the rhetoric coming from the likes of BDS on college campuses is then used as ammunition against Israel in the United Nations, yet these same people have never actually set foot in the Jewish state.

“They are only based on lies, but lies don’t have feet on the ground and they will crumble,” said Elkhoury.

Elkhoury added that the anti-Zionists “are afraid that our message is going to get out,” which makes it all the more important to “stand proudly and support Israel because this is what you believe in.”

Food, money and Jews

The issue of all issues in the nonprofit world must surely be how to attract donors to your cause. Every day, thousands of good causes vie for the attention of those with big hearts and the capacity to give.

There are countless ways of getting funding — foundation grants, federations, private donors, personal connections, revenue-driving programming, fundraising galas, crowdfunding and, of course, a rich uncle. It’s not an exact science. Raising money in the Jewish world can be one big wonderful mess.

Into this mess have jumped Gila and Adam Milstein, with a dose of Israeliness.

Adam is co-founder and national chairman of the fast-growing Israeli American Council (IAC); Gila is president of Stand By Me, an organization that supports Israeli-American cancer patients and their families in Los Angeles. They are co-founders of the Milstein Family Foundation, which supports a wide range of pro-Israel organizations.

The Milsteins live and breathe the nonprofit world, so they should know what’s missing. A year ago they saw an opportunity, and with the help of friends started The Donor Forum, a private, flexible and efficient model to connect pro-Israel donors with pro-Israel causes.

About once a month, a group of donors gets together over lunch to hear pitches from representatives of select causes. It’s great if you have a short attention span — the pitches last less than 15 minutes and direct solicitations are not allowed. The idea is to make connections and let the parties follow up.

Forum members commit to giving a minimum of $10,000 annually to the organizations featured. A steering committee of prominent local philanthropists selects the causes, recommends new members and contributes a minimum of $25,000 annually to those causes.

Why do I say this funding model is like a dose of Israeliness? It’s not just because my friend Adam and I frequently use that term when talking about what the IAC has brought to the Jewish community. Adam didn’t specifically refer to “Israeliness” when he brought up the forum, but he didn’t have to. It clearly applies.

One reason is the speed and simplicity — it’s chik chak, you’re in and out. There’s no yearlong process of cultivating donors and building relationships so you can eventually make an ask. Here, the connections get made instantly. It’s all about the quality of the idea and the people making the pitch, and you see it all in one shot, face to face.

The other sign of Israeliness is the kind of causes the Milsteins pick — feisty with significant potential. Some of the groups that already have made pitches to the forum include JLens, Reservists on Duty, The Lawfare Project, Heroes to Heroes and My Truth.

Here, the connection gets made instantly. It’s all about the quality of the idea and the people making the pitch, and you see it all in one shot, face to face.

At the forum’s most recent luncheon a few weeks ago in Westwood, I saw two pitches — from the Haym Salomon Center (HSC), a news and public policy group; and Students Supporting Israel, a pro-Israel grassroots movement on college and high school campuses. HSC is involved in something like guerrilla hasbara, or public relations. It creates all kinds of original content — news stories, commentary, analysis, opinion pieces — that it disseminates throughout the mainstream media to benefit Israel and the Jewish community.

At the luncheon, the HSC’s presenter showed his hand right away: We must transform the culture if we want to influence the views on Israel, and the best and quickest way to do that is through the mainstream media, he said.

He showed examples of how media stories can be biased against Israel while being completely accurate. He also showed how a headline slanted against Israel can easily be fixed. Then he rattled off the obligatory metrics — more than 1,200 articles and media mentions published online and in print, bylines in prestigious publications, and so on — and where new money would go to help them grow.

After about 10 minutes, donors had the key information they needed.

Representatives of the second group, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), were definitely feisty. The two presenters who run the organization said they were all about “boots on the ground,” and showed how they have mobilized students on more than 40 campuses to open SSI chapters and advocate for Israel using creative techniques built on unabashed Zionist pride. Of the examples they showed, I think my favorite was a huge blowup doll of Pinocchio right next to an Israel apartheid wall.

They also rattled off metrics, which included victories against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiatives and the passing of pro-Israel resolutions. They showed their budget and how much money they were looking for to accelerate their growth. Every funding item was fully detailed.

It was clear to me that both the donors and the causes at the forum were vetted to be passionately and unapologetically pro-Israel. After the lunch, there was plenty of happy schmoozing and sharing of contact information, which will undoubtedly lead to donations.

The only Israeli things missing were the Turkish coffee and a little more arguing.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Moving and Shaking: IFF holds annual luncheon, synagogues collect items for refugees, Saban on Walk of Fame

From left: Israeli actress Sapir Azulay, Israeli-American film producer Avi Lerner, talent agent Adam Berkowitz, Israeli actress and producer Noa Tishby, IsraFest founder and executive director Meir Fenigstein, “House” creator David Shore and Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul (in front) attend the IsraFest luncheon. Photo by Pal Photography.

Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the Isra-Fest Foundation, which brings Israeli films to Los Angeles each year as part of the Israel Film Festival (IFF), knows how to thank his supporters. Several months before each festival, he invites them to a luncheon at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.

Fenigstein made aliyah with his family three years ago after residing in Los Angeles for many years. He continues to run the IFF from his new home in Israel and through frequent visits to L.A.

This year, the luncheon honored David Shore, creator of the television show “House” and a board member at Save a Child’s Heart, with the IFF Visionary Award; Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at Creative Artists Agency, who has been instrumental in selling numerous TV shows, including “Seinfeld” and two Israeli series, “The Greenhouse” and “Fauda,” with the IFF Career Achievement Award; and Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Max Webb with the IFF Lifetime Achievement Award.

Webb delivered the most moving speech of the event, recounting his 12 years in labor camps and six concentration camps, and the promise he made to himself, his mother and to God. “I made a vow that if I get out of this hell, I’ll help others in need, the Jewish people and Israel,” Webb said.

After building a real estate empire in California, he kept true to his promise and donated millions of dollars to charity organizations, hospitals and the State of Israel.

During the event, Webb celebrated his 100th birthday (his actual birthday is March 2) and blew out candles on a cake presented to him by Fenigstein, while guests sang “Happy Birthday.”

IFF will take place Nov. 7-22 at various Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Temple Beth Am members Gary Bachrach (left) and Mathis Chazanov pose behind of a U-Haul truck loaded with donated household items for refugee resettlement in San Diego.  Photo by Tyson Roberts.

Temple Beth Am members Gary Bachrach (left) and Mathis Chazanov pose behind of a U-Haul truck loaded with donated household items for refugee resettlement in San Diego. Photo by Tyson Roberts.

What began as a partnership between Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea to collect household items for refugee resettlement in San Diego grew into a community-wide effort involving six local Jewish organizations, with a daylong collection effort on March 16 dubbed “Project Hope.”

A rented truck driven by Beth Am member Tyson Roberts began to make its rounds at 7 a.m., stopping at private homes as well as multiple synagogues. Community members donated furniture, toiletries and other everyday necessities. The following day, Roberts delivered the donations to Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFSSD), which helps resettle refugees from around the world. By March 17, some of the items collected already had furnished apartments for two Afghan families, JFSSD said.

Temple Beth Am’s Refugee Taskforce led the collection drive, partnering with Camp Gilboa. Roberts’ daughter, Shoshana Roberts, spearheaded Camp Gilboa’s involvement as her bat mitzvah project, working with the camp’s executive director, Dalit Shlapobersky.

The other Jewish institutions involved were IKAR, Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and Kehilat Israel in the Pacific Palisades.

The effort collected dining sets, sofas, armchairs, toaster and microwaves ovens, a crib and more. It was the second iteration of Project Hope, following a previous collection last August.

Tyson Roberts said he hopes to hold a third donation drive this summer. “A lot of people, as I was loading the truck, were like, ‘Wait, I still have stuff!’ ” he said.

More information and a list of items requested by the JFSSD can be found online at

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

From left: Mayor Eric Garcetti, David Foster, Haim Saban and Simon Cowell come together to celebrate Saban receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy of Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

From left: Mayor Eric Garcetti, David Foster, Haim Saban and Simon Cowell come together to celebrate Saban receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo courtesy of Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored Haim Saban with a star on the Walk of Fame in front of the Egyptian Theatre at 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Lionsgate, the film studio behind “Saban’s Power Rangers,” now in theaters, nominated Saban, an Israeli-American media producer, businessman and philanthropist, for the honor.

Saban, the creator of the “Power Rangers” television show, expressed his gratitude to Lionsgate during the March 22 ceremony “for your belief in the ‘Power Rangers’ franchise, and for your unconditional support for the launch of the ‘Power Rangers’ movie … [which,] Baruch Ha-Shem, with God’s help, will be a resounding success.”

The fee for installing a star on the Walk of Fame is $40,000 and the sponsor of the nominee is responsible for the cost. The money benefits the nonprofit Hollywood Historic Trust.

Attendees included Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Leron Gubler, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, musician David Foster and former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell.

Saban is a member in the Hollywood Walk of Fame Class of 2017 in the Television category, joining Sarah Silverman, Jeffrey Tambor and George Segal.

Bill and Hillary Clinton congratulated Saban for receiving a star on the Walk of Fame in a letter that was published on the website of Variety. “This well-deserved honor is not only a testament to your decades of groundbreaking contributions in the entertainment industry,” the letter from the former U.S. president and his wife, the former senator and presidential candidate, says, “but to your enduring generosity and efforts to advance good causes across America and around the world.”

Sean Phil, an Agoura Hills resident and former Israel Defense Forces officer, leads a training exercise for teenage students at “Israel 200.” Photo courtesy of CTeen Conejo.

Sean Phil, an Agoura Hills resident and former Israel Defense Forces officer, leads a training exercise for teenage students at “Israel 200.” Photo courtesy of CTeen Conejo.

Feb. 5 Israel solidarity event titled “Israel 200” — which aimed to draw 200 student attendees — attracted 120 teenage students in grades 8 through 12 to Chabad of North Ranch. The event featured workshops, a buffet lunch and discussions that included “Israel — Why Should I Care?”

Organizers were Rabbi Mendy Friedman and Mushka Friedman, co-directors of CTeen Conejo.

“We may be thousands of miles away [from Israel], but the events going on there are of utmost importance to Jews and people of conscience all over, including teens,” Mushka Friedman said in a statement.

Speakers were from StandWithUs, the Jewish National Fund and other organizations, including Israel Defense Forces (Ret.) Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, founder of Our Soldiers Speak. Additionally, students participated in a boot camp training that “pushed them to discover inner strengths and the ability to go beyond themselves,” a press release said.

CTeen Conejo describes itself as “a community organization under the auspices of Chabad that is dedicated to encouraging teens to make the world a better place.”

From left: Erez Goldman, Oded Krashinsky, Naty Saidoff, Michael Michalov, Guy Bachar, Miri Shepher, Mazal Hadad, Danny Alpert, Adam Milstein, Tamir Cohen, Amnon Mizrahi and Shawn Evenhaim attend the Israeli American Council gala. Photo by Linda Kasian.

From left: Erez Goldman, Oded Krashinsky, Naty Saidoff, Michael Michalov, Guy Bachar, Miri Shepher, Mazal Hadad, Danny Alpert, Adam Milstein, Tamir Cohen, Amnon Mizrahi and Shawn Evenhaim attend the Israeli American Council gala. Photo by Linda Kasian.

More than 1,000 people attended the ninth annual Israeli American Council (IAC) gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton hotel on March 19.

Guests included Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, whose support has helped the IAC open 12 regional offices across the United States since a group of Israeli-American leaders founded the organization a decade ago in Los Angeles.

IAC has grown steadily since its establishment, holding community events such as the Celebrate Israel festival and operating a variety of programs, including Eitanim, which connects high school students to Israel as they prepare for college and develop professional skills.

IAC National Chairman Adam Milstein discussed the importance of the organization for the future generations of Israeli Americans.

“As I think about the future and look 10, 20, 50 years down the line, I’m not sure if I will be here, but I know the IAC will be. We are creating a grass-roots movement that will last for generations for Israel, for America and for the Jewish people,” he said.

Additional speakers included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was introduced as the city’s first Jewish mayor; radio host and Journal columnist Dennis Prager; and Holocaust survivor David Wiener, who was the gala honoree in recognition of his philanthropy and passionate involvement with many organizations that support Israel and Jewish life.

Wiener told his heart-wrenching story of survival, saying, “The best day of my life was the day the State of Israel was established.”

Mentalist Lior Suchard emceed the evening. During his performance, he guessed correctly the name of one woman’s first love, one of his many mind-reading tricks.

During the fundraising portion of the evening, attendees pledged more than $2 million in support of the organization, including IAC board member Naty Saidoff’s pledge of almost $600,000.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email n

Moving and Shaking: Bet Tzedek’s big night, IAC holds conference, interfaith tolerance celebrated

From left: Terry Friedman, chair of Bet Tzedek’s board of directors; Bet Tzedek President and CEO Jessie Kornberg; and Georgina and Alan Rothenberg at Bet Tzedek’s annual gala on Feb. 21. The Rothenbergs received the Luis Lainer Founder’s Award at the gala. Photo by Kim Silverstein, Silver Lining Photography.

Bet Tzedek Legal Services honored donors and employees with awards Feb. 21 at its annual gala dinner, which was attended by more than 1,200 people at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live.

The organization helps low-income clients deal with a range of legal issues, from housing to elder abuse.

Prominent Los Angeles lawyer Alan Rothenberg and his wife, Georgina, received the Luis Lainer Founder’s Award. The Eisner Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in intergenerational programming, received the Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award. Bet Tzedek elder-fraud attorney Nicholas Levenhagen received the Jack H. Skirball Community Justice Award.

Most Rev. José H. Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, delivered the evening’s invocation.

Philanthropists Art and Dahlia Bilger, who donated $50,000 on the occasion of the gala, were among the dinner’s co-chairs, along with Mayor Eric Garcetti; retired California Chief Justice Ronald George and his wife, Barbara; and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor and his wife, writer and former broadcast journalist Heidi Schulman.

Bet Tzedek reported that it raised more than $2.1 million from the dinner.

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Rabba Yaffa Epstein led a salon-style, Purim-focused learning session on Feb. 24.  Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein led a salon-style, Purim-focused learning session on Feb. 24. Photo by Esther Kustanowitz.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein, director of strategic partnerships at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, led a salon-style, Purim-focused text study at the West Adams home of Abby Fifer Mandell, executive director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC’s Marshall School of Business, on Feb. 24.

Yeshivat Maharat is the self-described “first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy.”

Over the course of two hours, participants at the gathering split up into pairs and examined texts from the megillah, the Mishnah and more. They discussed the importance of celebrating Purim in a communal setting and what distinguishes Purim from other Jewish holidays. Attendees included Jewish Journal Contributing Writer Esther Kustanowitz, organizer of the event; actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”); Fifer Mandell’s husband, Avram Mandell, executive director and founder of Tzedek America; current Tzedek America fellows Gabe Melmed and Emily Heaps; Todd Shotz, founder and executive director of Hebrew Helpers; and consultant Wendy Jackler.

Cheese and wine were served to attendees, many of whom were affiliated with LimmudLA, a volunteer-led Jewish learning community, and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, a leadership development program for Jewish communal professionals. Limmud Bay Area co-founder Mila Wichter was among the participants.

“The opportunity to sit around in someone’s living room and talk about what makes Purim different from all the other holidays provided a burst of energy at the end of a long day,” Kustanowitz said.

Approximately 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the Israeli American Council Mishelanu conference.  Photo courtesy of Israeli American Council.

Approximately 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the Israeli American Council Mishelanu conference. Photo courtesy of Israeli American Council.

Israeli American Council (IAC) Mishelanu held its third national conference Feb. 17-19 at the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel.

Mishelanu, a college campus program, provides a home for Israeli-American students who explore their Israeli-American and Jewish identities through culture, language, heritage and a strong connection to Israel. The national network is present on 96 campuses.

About 400 Israeli-American students from across the country attended the conference. The students spent the weekend participating in breakout sessions on initiative-building, networking, policy and political organizing, strategic leadership, social media campaigning, Israeli-American media and Israeli music.

Speakers included entrepreneurs, business leaders and nonprofit professionals. Among them were Guy Katsovich and Yair Vardi, managing partners of Splash Ventures; Roy Dekel, CEO of SetSchedule; and Yotam Polizer, co-CEO at the humanitarian response organization IsraAID.

Also appearing were Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yemini; educator Neil Lazarus, an expert on the Middle East and Israeli politics; and Moti Kahana, the Israeli-American founder of Amaliah, an American organization aiding Syrian refugees.

IAC leaders in attendance were Chairman Adam Milstein, CEO Shoham Nicolet, Chairman Emeritus Shawn Evenhaim, board member Naty Saidoff and Los Angeles regional director Erez Goldman.

The program reaches nearly 1,000 students in 17 states.

“IAC Mishelanu students are our ‘secret sauce’ on campus,” Nicolet said in a statement. “They speak both ‘Israeli’ and ‘American’ and can serve as a unique bridge within the university’s student body, spreading love and passion for Israel.”

Manny Dahari, 23, a student at Yeshiva University and a Mishelanu student leader, was among those who attended the conference.

“I’ve attended all three Mishelanu conferences and it only gets bigger and better each year,” Dahari said. “This year’s conference was fantastic, as always. I believe the Israeli-American community is getting stronger and Mishelanu will only continue to grow around the country.”

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

ms-interfaith toleranceDuring the first Interfaith Tolerance Awards, Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev honored Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Churches in Action founder Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez and King Fahad Mosque member Mahomed Akbar Khan in recognition of their efforts in promoting peace, tolerance and harmony among the three major religions.

The Feb. 21 event at the Museum of Tolerance also featured the screening of the documentary “Running From the Darkness.” Produced by J-Connect, an organization with which Bookstein is involved, and the One Wish Project, the film spotlights the 1992 Khojaly Massacre, when Armenian armed forces committed a mass murder of Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly. In 2015, Bookstein visited Baku, Azerbaijan’s largest city and home to a little-known community of mountain Jews.

About 200 people attended the awards event, including Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance; Josh Kaplan, president of J-Connect; and Neuriel Shore, a Pico Shul congregant and senior campaign executive at the Jewish National Fund.

A live performance of Azerbaijani and European classical music followed the ceremony and screening.

ms-Hutman at Little TokyoSamara Hutman, director of Remember Us, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, participated in a Feb. 18 forum at the Japanese American National Museum addressing the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066.

Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, Executive Order 9066 resulted in the forced incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Hutman was on a panel that featured African-American, Japanese-American, Muslim and Latina speakers, including Norman Mineta, who served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of transportation; former Congressman Mike Honda; and Haru Kuromiya, a 90-year-old Japanese-American placed in an internment camp after Roosevelt’s executive order.

The event’s speakers drew parallels between the executive order of 1942 and President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, which, though ultimately blocked by the judicial branch of government, would have barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Hutman and others stood before a banner-sized petition opposing “executive orders and laws that attack our civil and constitutional rights.” In addition, she read three poems, one by a child who was in the Terezin concentration camp during the Shoah and two by Japanese children placed into internment camps in the 1940s.

The event coincided with the opening of a new exhibition at the museum titled “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066,” which runs until Aug. 13.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Calendar: February 3-9



In honor of American Heart Month, the “Bless Your Heart” Shabbat service welcomes you to “Say Shalom, Save a Life.” There will be a five-minute hands-on CPR lesson to kick off the evening. 7 p.m.; 7:30 p.m. Shabbat service. Free. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891.


Pray, learn and sing with the community during this service. A young woman on the autism spectrum will read her college entrance essay. 7:30 p.m. $10; $5 for children. Congregation Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road, Suite B, Calabasas. (818) 497-1281.


Rising playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, creator of The New York Times best-seller “My Little Red Book,” has written “The Bumps,” featuring a cast of three expectant mothers. “The Bumpscombines narrative that follows how the understanding of motherhood has evolved. Directed by Deena Selenow, with an all-female team of designers and cast. A conversation with the creative team of “The Bumps” will follow the performance. 8 p.m. Also 2 p.m. Feb. 4. Child care and art activities offered for a limited number of children (ages 3 and older) at the Saturday performance. $10; $8 members; $5 for students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.



Enjoy a hike, picnic, activities and the beautiful outdoors in celebration of Tu B’Shevat. Bring your own food and drinks. Organized by MATI, the Israeli American Council, Tzofim Shevet Harel and Sinai Temple. 9:30 a.m. Free, but RSVP requested. Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Spring Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 351-7021.



cal-no-crownDirector Tomer Heymann’s autobiographical documentary “The Queen Has No Crown” is a poignant meditation on belonging, loss and sexuality.

Weaving archival and original footage, the film follows the lives of the five Heymann brothers and their mother. The film examines the difficult decisions the family had to make amid turbulent social and political events. No MPAA rating. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Q-and-A with the director follows the screening. 7:30 p.m. $10 general; $6 full-time students; free to members. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


In the first of a series of three programs, widely published Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino will speak on the subjects of marriage and family, and will examine how Jewish values help strengthen relationships. 6:30 p.m. Free. RSVP to (310) 474-1518, ext. 3340 or Sinai Temple Men’s Club, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.


Former World Debate Champion Yoni Cohen-Idov will discuss the tools you need to win any argument during this informative lecture. For Jewish young professionals, ages 21-39. RSVP must be under your name. 7:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.

UNITY 3000

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ashkenazi and secular Jews and people of other faiths will unite through faith in one God at Unity 3000, presented by Junity. Rabbi and best-selling writer Shalom Arush, author of “The Garden of Emuna” and “The Garden of Peace,” will lead the gathering. 8 p.m. Free. Register online to secure a ticket and seat. (At the door, seats are first come, first served for unregistered guests.) Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Also 8 p.m. Wednesday, Eretz Center, 6170 Wilbur Ave., Tarzana. 



Westwood Village Synagogue presents a discussion on how to navigate the relationship between LGBTQ and Modern Orthodoxy.  Rabbi Ari Segal, head of Shalhevet; Micha Thau, a student at Shalhevet; and actor and comedian Elon Gold will participate in the discussion. Part of the Betty Matoff Lecture Series. 7 p.m. Free. Westwood Village Synagogue, 1148 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 824-9987.



cal-ameliaAmelia Saltsman, award-winning author of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” and Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople, will discuss Jewish tradition, culinary delights, climate change and how Tu B’Shevat encourages eco-conscious living. Moderated by Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s “Good Food.” Q-and-A, book signing and tasting of seasonal dishes will follow the program. 7:30 p.m. $12; $10 for members and students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


C_Barkan_Berlin_9780226010663_jkt_IFTWhat is it like for a Jew to travel to Berlin today? What happens when an American Jew raised by a secular family falls in love with Berlin? Leonard Barkan’s “Berlin for Jews” is a personal love letter to the city that explores these questions and many more. Discussion with Barkan with a reception to follow the presentation. 7 p.m. Free. Seating is limited. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 525-3388.

Moving and Shaking: Celebrate Israel Festival

The Israeli American Council’s (IAC) Celebrate Israel festival drew more than 15,000 attendees of all ages and backgrounds to Cheviot Hills Recreation Center on May 15, making it the largest Jewish festival in North America, according to organizers.

“If we can connect tens of thousands of Jewish Americans, Israeli Americans, it’s the best return on investment you can get,” Erez Goldman, the regional director of the IAC, told the Journal the day after the festival.

The climax of the gathering occurred as Iranian-Israeli singer Rita, the event’s headlining performer, appeared barefoot on the festival’s main stage, accompanied by a quintet of musicians. Singing in English, Hebrew and Farsi, she danced around the stage as she performed, leaving the enthusiastic crowd wanting more. “Once more!” they chanted in Hebrew, waving tiny Israeli and American flags.

The event began hours earlier at 11 a.m. with a “Salute to Israel” march organized by pro-Israel organization StandWithUs that drew 600 participants, according to a StandWithUs spokesperson. The participants marched from the park, which is located at Pico Boulevard and Motor Avenue, to the nearby Simon Wiesenthal Center, where they sang “Hatikvah” before returning. 

Early afternoon activities at the park were numerous. There were carnival rides, entertainment for kids, plenty of kosher culinary cuisine, local vendors and booths featuring local nonprofits and more. 

A Middle Eastern pavilion, organized by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, provided attendees with the opportunity to make their own tea bags and compete in a backgammon tournament. 

“I love this game,” Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel President Alex Rachmanony said, seated before a backgammon board. “I think we [Middle Eastern people] came out of the womb playing shesh besh,” he added, using another name for the game — a mix of Hebrew and Turkish. 

Nearby, at the Israeli-American Pavilion, Israeli-manufactured cars — the Sussita and the Sabra — were on display, much to the delight of Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul. 

“It’s original,” he said during an interview at the 21-and-older bar called #MeetMeAtTheBar, which served up the Middle Eastern licorice-flavored liquor arak, beer and other drinks to young professionals. 

A ceremony, beginning at 3:15 p.m., featured remarks by elected officials, community leaders and others. “Celebrating Israel shouldn’t just be today,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel said, addressing the crowd. “It should be every day of the week.” 

Those joining Siegel onstage for the ceremony included IAC co-founder and national Chairman Adam Milstein; Miri Shepher, Los Angeles Council chairwoman of the IAC; her husband, Isaac; and Naty and Debbie Saidoff, who underwrote a large portion of the $700,000-plus festival. Politicians in attendance included L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz; L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin; L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer; Chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party Eric Bauman; and state Assemblymembers Travis Allen and Richard Bloom, who are backers of legislation that combats the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. 

A flyover by the formation flying team Tiger Squadron also took place during the late-afternoon ceremony. 

“You don’t see that everyday,” said Yiddish performer Mike Burstyn, who emceed the ceremony.

Concerts by Lokchim et Hazman (“Taking Your Time”), DJ Aviel and Rita followed the ceremony. Attendees flocked to the pit area in front of the stage and waved flags as they danced to the music of the performers. 

IAC regional council member Tamir Cohen told the Journal he would like to see more involvement by the American-Jewish community at future festivals.

“We hope to see more American-Jewish [community members] coming and participating and helping and getting involved and realizing if their kids are not going to come here, they’re going to stay away from Judaism and Israel,” Cohen said.

As the festival concluded, Naty Saidoff, hanging around the entrance, said he hoped the event not only helped bring together supporters of Israel but that it would help push back against the BDS movement. 

“When we see all these people and the politicians see the activism, we can recognize it [as] doing God’s work,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons that we are doing this.”

Moving and Shaking highlights event, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Celebrate Israel Festival seeks to engage, expand partnerships

With a precision flyover, a Moroccan henna party, a fairy hunt, an exhibition honoring 75 years of Bob Dylan and officials paying tribute to the Jewish state, the annual Yom HaAtzmaut Celebrate Israel Los Angeles festival is set to take place this Sunday at Cheviot Hills Recreation Center (Rancho Park).  

The Israeli American Council (IAC), organizer of the annual event, hopes to draw a crowd of more than 10,000 to the festival, which features live Israeli music for all ages, including a kids stage, kids activities, a 21-and-older bar that will be sponsored by various young professionals’ organizations throughout the day and more, all in celebration of Israel’s 68th birthday. 

“I think the strongest message right now when BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] is happening in Europe is we need to show in America it’s different and we carry the Israeli flag with pride as Jews,” IAC Regional Director Erez Goldman said in a phone interview.

This year’s festival also features pavilions celebrating the Jewish people’s connections to Ethiopia, Morocco and Eastern Europe, a world marketplace, kosher food and more. 

More than 75 local organizations and businesses, including the Jewish Journal, will be represented with booths at the festival. There also will be 25 artists’ booths, 13 food vendors, all kosher, and a variety of pavilions, including one for Magen David Adom, where a blood drive will be held to support Bikur Cholim.

All this hasn’t come easy: The IAC spends approximately $700,000 to produce the festival, including for high-level security, marketing and equipment rentals, according to Dikla Kadosh, senior director of the IAC community center and events.

The Los Angeles office of the IAC, which oversees nine regional offices, is spending $100,000 of its annual $3 million Los Angeles budget on the festival. Philanthropists Naty and Debbie Saidoff, as well as corporate sponsors, vendors and ticket sales make up most of the difference. Tickets cost $10 online and $15 at the festival (cash will not be accepted for admission at the door).

A Salute to Israel Walk organized by StandWithUs precedes a previous Israeli American Council Celebrate Israel festival. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

This year marks the fifth consecutive year the IAC has held its Celebrate Israel festival in West Los Angeles. The IAC took the reins of the festival in 2012 after financial concerns by the previous organizer, which held the celebration in the San Fernando Valley, caused it to be canceled in 2011. The Saidoffs have been instrumental in bringing the festival to the Westside and keeping it an annual event.

Goldman, for his part, said he hopes the organization can spend less than $700,000 on the festival in future years. He hopes other organizations will become more involved partners in making the festival possible. 

“I think more organizations definitely need to take part in Celebrate Israel,” he said. 

The theme of this year’s festival is “Israel: A Mosaic of Jewish Cultures.”

The mainstage musical headliner is Israeli-Iranian singer Rita, a veteran performer known for singing in Hebrew, English and Farsi. Goldman said he expects her performance to be a “big production.”

Other entertainment includes Lokchim et Hazman (“Taking Your Time”), which includes Roni Dalumi, the 2009 winner of Israel’s version of “American Idol,” along with Israeli performer Lee Biran and Israeli actress Eliana Tidhar. Goldman described the act as the “hottest family show going on … they play a string of Israeli music from all of Israel’s history. They do it in a cool way. Someone who is 45 years old can enjoy it with their kid who is 15 years old.”

If the goal is to appeal to as large a demographic as possible, Goldman believes they’ve achieved that.

“I think we were able to, kind of music-wise and culture-wise, create the biggest tent we can have,” Goldman said. “I think we were successful in that.”

The IAC, which was founded in 2007 in Los Angeles as a resource for empowering and organizing the Israeli-American community here — the largest Israeli community in the United States — has grown to become a national organization through significant support from philanthropist and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in recent years. The IAC’s Los Angeles office continues to serve as its headquarters, even as offices open in eight more cities outside of L.A. IAC Celebrate Israel festivals are also taking place this month in Boston, Florida, New Jersey, Las Vegas and New York, among other locations.

Goldman, an American-born Jew who made aliyah to Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces and has been running the regional office of the IAC for the past seven months. He said he plans to attend the festival with his children and his parents. 

“My perfect picture would be a father with a kid on his shoulders,” he said, “and they’re both enjoying the music.”

The annual festival begins at 11 a.m. and concludes at 6 p.m., with an official Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony at 3:15 p.m. For more information, visit

A new home for Israeli-American engagement

The sign on the futuristic white building, located on Winnetka Avenue just north of Pierce College, will welcome visitors to the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) Shepher Community Center. But the family whose $3.6 million donation made the center possible envisions the site as having an even more profound purpose than simply a place to meet for a book club or take an arts and crafts class.

“This is your home,” businessman and philanthropist Isaac Shepher told the more than 200 people who gathered Jan. 10 in Woodland Hills for the grand opening preview of the Shepher Center. “Our community, our children, our elderly, our moms and dads, young professionals looking for engagement … we all have a home. If you are Israeli American, this is your home. If you are Jewish American, this is your home.”

“We’re going to be doing good things for ourselves, for our children, for our community and for the State of Israel,” added Shepher’s wife, Miri, the IAC Los Angeles council chairwoman. “This is our mission.”

Administrators from the 8-year-old IAC said that prolific growth within their organization and in the national Israeli-American population made it a necessity to establish a community center that could also serve as a hub for agency operations. Established in Los Angeles in 2007, the IAC now operates nine offices throughout the United States, and the agency hopes that similar new community centers will spring up all over the country as well.

The Woodland Hills facility will occupy what had previously been the rehabilitation center for the Crippled Children’s Society, designed in 1979 by renowned architect John Lautner. The building had once been slated for demolition. Instead, beginning this spring, it will fill a distinct social and cultural need, according to Adam Milstein, IAC national chairman. 

“We have recognized that there are 1 million people [in the United States] who have an Israeli-American identity, who want to have an active part of our movement,” Milstein said. “We feel we are the bridge between American and Israeli people.”

Currently, the unusual Space Age-looking building with a pie slice-shaped floor plan features a series of rooms, including a stage. Before long, officials expect the Shepher Community Center to provide a range of offerings — from dance classes and Hebrew-language films to mother-and-baby classes and senior citizen activity groups. There’s also the promise of exhibitions that focus on Israeli-American life, culture and history, as well as recreational facilities that include a gym and a basketball court. 

In addition to running the existing 11,000-square-foot building formerly owned by the nonprofit AbilityFirst, the IAC will build an additional 30,000 square feet of office space, which is slated to be completed in two years. The new building will house the IAC headquarters and space will be available to rent by partnering nonprofits that promote Israeli and Jewish values, according to IAC leaders. 

IAC administrators envision the center as a place for the next generation of Israeli-American and Jewish leaders to continue to learn about and promote diplomacy and pro-Israel advocacy. 

“We’re going to try to encourage activism,” said Naty Saidoff, an IAC national board member. “For something bad to happen, all you need is a bunch of good people not to take action. Apathy is the enemy, and so we all have to get engaged.”

IAC administrators say the Shepher Center steps into the breach left by the closing of numerous area JCCs and similar facilities throughout the city over the years. (In the San Fernando Valley, it will join the Valley Jewish Community Center, also located in Woodland Hills.) Programming will be based to some extent on community need, said Erez Goldman, IAC regional director. 

“I have already been approached by people who served with the Israeli veterans who have said, ‘Let’s start a group,’ ” Goldman said. “The IAC’s national offices are running engagement programs where we say to the community, ‘Tell us what you need and we’re at your service. We’ll give you the house and we can host whatever the community needs.’ ”

The grand preview opening drew IAC supporters as well as city and state legislators who presented the IAC with certificates and commendations. IAC honored Naty Saidoff and wife Debbie, who — along with the Shephers — led the capital campaign to acquire the property from the Crippled Children’s Society, which changed its name to AbilityFirst in 2004.

L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, whose District 3 includes the west San Fernando Valley, said he expects the Shepher Center to greatly enhance the community. 

“It’s wonderfully important, not only because this is my council district, but also because it is a center for the Jewish community and for the Israeli-American community, and we haven’t had that for a very long time,” said Blumenfield, who worked with the IAC and the city to help move the project forward.

“This is going to be a place that will enliven the community, and I think will create stronger bonds within the Israeli-American community and in the larger Jewish community,” the councilman added. “So I’m just ecstatic that this is happening.”

At Israeli-American Council’s second national conference, more people and less politics

As about 1,300 Israeli Americans convened from Oct. 17-19 in Washington, D.C., for the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) second annual national conference, anxiety and anger over the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings in Israel was a much-discussed topic during a weekend that was otherwise less flashy, less political and more formal than the group’s flashy inaugural conference a year ago.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, gave the opening remarks on Saturday evening, with a message that Israeli officials have consistently sent over the past few weeks — that the torrent of stabbings of Israeli Jews is a result of incitement in Palestinian culture, and not something that would change even if Israeli policy toward the Palestinians changes. This was in sharp contrast with Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks at a Harvard event, where he blamed the stalled peace process and “a massive increase in settlements” for “this violence, because there’s a frustration that is growing.”

Dermer told the receptive crowd, “If the international community would focus on Palestinian incitement one-tenth as much as they focus on building apartments for Jews in Jerusalem, the situation might be very different.” And on Sunday evening, Israeli cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz offered a similar message, saying, “This violence is only about incitement.”

Dermer, like many in attendance, was born in the United States to an Israeli parent. Receiving numerous rounds of applause and a standing ovation from much of the crowd in a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton, Dermer said, “What my ima [mother] passed on to me, you can pass on to your children,” encapsulating one of the IAC’s primary goals — to foster a strong connection to Israel among first- and second-generation Israeli Americans.

At last year’s conference, which drew 500 fewer people and was held in a much smaller ballroom at the Hilton, headlines in major media outlets focused on big political names who addressed the IAC crowd, among them 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and billionaire rival political kingmakers Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, who participated in a lively and entertaining onstage discussion during which they talked (or joked) about teaming up to purchase The New York Times and Washington Post, in order to ensure that those two outlets would cover Israel more favorably, Saban said at the time.

At this year’s conference, the IAC’s VIP list and topics of discussion were much tamer — no presidential candidates, no senators, and an even split of Democrats and Republicans, all strong supporters of Israel and all opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature diplomatic nuclear agreement with Iran. They included California Congressmen Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).

Sherman, who spoke Saturday evening after Dermer, sharply criticized, to loud applause, the idea that Israeli settlements factor into the recent stabbings.

“They did not die because there were protesters who were concerned about settlements,” Sherman said. “[They] died at the hands of terrorists who are motivated by a racist ideology that calls upon its adherents to expel all Jews from the Middle East.”

Notably missing from this year’s conference was Saban, who recently ended his support of the IAC and of Campus Maccabees, a new task force he helped create last summer with Adelson to fight the growing on-campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has successfully passed dozens of resolutions in student governments targeting boycotts of Israeli goods and companies that do business with the Israeli government. Although it was rumored that Saban’s withdrawal of support from the two groups stemmed from differences he has with Adelson, his team has said he left in order to focus on other philanthropic efforts for the time being. Adelson has given millions of dollars to the IAC and is the group’s largest donor, having given $12 million to the group at its March gala and fueling its national expansion in 2013.

Adelson was notably lower key when he spoke Monday than he often is when in front of friendly audiences and reporters, mostly using the opportunity to praise one of his biggest philanthropic benefactors, Birthright Israel, for its impact on young American Jews. In his discussion with Barry Shrage, who heads the Boston Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among the largest Jewish Federations in the country, political observers in the room were closely watching Adelson for hints as to which Republican presidential candidate he’ll support for the 2016 election, but Adelson didn’t touch at all on politics. In fact, the most notable comments from the discussion, the last event of the conference, came from Shrage, who called on Jewish Federations across the country to work closely with the IAC and help integrate it into local Jewish communities.

“We insist that IAC become an integral [part] of every community,” Shrage said. In Los Angeles, home to the IAC’s national office and to the largest number of Israelis and Israeli Americans in the United States, the IAC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shared a cool relationship since the IAC’s inception in 2007, working together on very few initiatives. Shrage also criticized leading Jewish-American figures on the left, such as author and commentator Peter Beinart, “who would love us to believe that the best way to alienate our next generation is to engage on Israel issues.”

“That would be a horrible self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what I think some of those people actually want,” Shrage said.

The structure of the breakout sessions, offered in English and Hebrew, included topics such as “From the Frontlines: How to Defeat BDS,” “The Israeli Entrepreneur: What’s the Secret Sauce” and “Israel on Campus: Perception vs. Reality.” The conference felt similar in topics and structure to annual national conventions held by groups such as AIPAC and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), albeit with more emphasis on issues relevant to Israeli Americans.

And between breakout sessions, hundreds of people, ranging from college students and young professionals to veterans of the Jewish and Israeli professional world, chatted and networked over coffee, Bamba and Bissli, schmoozing and taking advantage of face time with pro-Israel and Israeli-American professionals who they more often communicate with via email and phone during the rest of the year.

The content of the major speeches and the groups represented during the breakout sessions indicated that the IAC, although currently active in seven cities nationwide, has quickly joined the professional mainstream Jewish-American pro-Israel community, which includes much larger groups such as AIPAC, the JFNA, and Birthright. And although Jewish groups such as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” JStreet were absent from the conference, Israel’s center-left opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, who lost handily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March elections, was received warmly by the crowd when he spoke onstage with Udi Segal, a journalist for Israel Channel 2.

As Adelson, who supported Netanyahu in the Israeli elections, sat only feet away, Herzog joked, “Unfortunately Sheldon and [wife] Miriam did not support me.”

“To say that it’s hopeless and therefore we should stay forever, wherever we are with no answer, leads us directly to the fact that we’ll be a one-state solution,” Herzog said to moderate applause.

Throughout the conference, people were constantly checking their phones for updates from Israel. News of several stabbings and attacks by Palestinians occurred over the weekend, and the grim news on the other side of the world was never far from the surface at the largest gathering of Israeli-Americans in the country.

“It makes me feel guilty that I am here talking about Israel and not actually supporting my family and friends who are in Israel,” said Niran Avni, an Israeli from suburban Tel Aviv who currently lives in Los Angeles. “But I like that we get to talk, and talk how we can influence from here what’s happening over there.”

One of the ways the IAC hopes to support Israel from the United States is by mobilizing teams of social media professionals to “defend Israel online” when conflicts break out. There were social media workshops and, in an area called “The Situation Room,” tables were set up with about two-dozen laptops where anyone could peruse the various ways that pro-Israel groups are using social media to advocate for and defend Israel online. The IAC also revealed a new partnership with IDC-Herzliya, in which the two groups will share resources and knowledge to assist Israel on social media.

Adam Milstein, an IAC co-founder who recently was named the group’s chairman of the board, said he believes the IAC offers Israeli-Americans a vehicle through which to support Israel from abroad. “Now that we have this organization, we have this identity, we have this movement. Part of it is to be advocates for the State of Israel.”

In addition to supporting cultural and Hebrew-language programs, and supporting Israel through social media and grants to pro-Israel groups, the IAC is also set to launch a lobbying arm that will be aimed at state and local governments, and maybe even the federal government. The group recently hired Dillon Hosier, former political adviser to Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles, to head the IAC’s statewide lobbying efforts, which Milstein said could include passing resolutions against BDS and for cooperation with Israel, and possibly become involved with Title VI anti-discrimination statutes at the federal level.

“We want to actually accomplish alliances in counties and municipalities,” Milstein said. “We want to be engaged in legislation that’s taking place on the federal level.”

Haim Saban quietly pulls out of Campus Maccabees and IAC

Just four months after speaking at a closed-door summit at Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Venetian Resort Hotel Casino marking the creation of Campus Maccabees, a new campus pro-Israel, anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) group, mega-donor Haim Saban has quietly ended his involvement with the group, as first reported by the Forward, as well as withdrawn his support from the Israeli-American Council (IAC), at least for now. Both groups are heavily supported by Adelson, and Saban’s pullback may indicate a potential (although not confirmed) break with Adelson, one of the nation’s top pro-Israel and Republican donors.

Saban is a major supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while Adelson, who has not yet named his favorite presidential candidate in the 2016 race, was among the largest donors in 2012 of Republican presidential candidates.

The two men first teamed up to support Israeli causes in 2013, when Adelson’s money fueled IAC’s nationwide expansion. Saban had been an IAC donor since 2008, when the group was still small (its annual budget is now about $18 million), and at its gala in Beverly Hills last March, he announced that he would add $1.2 million to Adelson’s $12 million raised that night.

For two years, the duo played the consummate political odd couple, sharing similar positions on Israel but on little else, supporting bitterly opposed political parties in the United States, yet sharing the stage to benefit the Jewish state, as they did last year in Washington, D.C., at the IAC’s inaugural national gala.

Now, however, both Campus Maccabees and IAC have confirmed, without further explanation, that Saban is no longer involved.

David Brog, director of Campus Maccabees and the former head of Christians United for Israel, said on Oct. 1 that he was surprised by Saban’s departure but that he believes it had nothing to do with the direction of Campus Maccabees, which is set to launch in the near future and hopes to combat the growing BDS, anti-Israel movement on American and Canadian campuses.

“I can state 100 percent, Saban did not leave us because he had any problem with our plans or our direction,” Brog said. “They have expressed no concerns whatsoever about the direction of Campus Maccabees. They were very much involved in setting that direction.”

Shawn Evenhaim, an IAC board member and the group’s former chairman, released the following statement to the Journal:

“The IAC is very proud that Haim Saban has been a champion and major supporter of our organization since its inception. In the near term, Mr. Saban is focusing all his efforts on the FIDF [Friends of the Israel Defense Forces] and the Saban Forum. We look forward to continuing our work with him.”

Spokespersons for Saban and Adelson did not respond to requests for comment. The Forward reported that a Saban spokesman said in a statement, “Haim Saban is focused on a range of philanthropic activities to promote pro-Israel advocacy and tackle efforts to delegitimize Israel. In the near term, Mr. Saban is also concentrating on the Friends of the IDF and the Saban Forum, both of which have major events in the next few months.”

Sheldon Adelson. Photo by Reuters

Smiling in a side-by-side interview on Israel’s Channel 2 News in June, Saban and Adelson introduced Israelis to their anti-BDS campus initiative, and said they were in sync on all issues Israel. 

“You can take a wild guess that come 2016, Dr. Miri Adelson and Sheldon Adelson and [my wife] Cheryl and I are going to vote for a different president,” Saban said. “With that said, when it comes to Israel, we are absolutely on the same page. Our interest is to take care of Israel’s interests in the United States. Period, over and out. So when it comes to this, there is no light between us at all.”

“He’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican — there’s really very little to do with it. We can use our influence, to the extent that both of us have any, with anybody that we know in the administration or in Congress for the betterment of the relations between the U.S. and Israel,” Adelson said.

But on Aug. 13, one month after a deal was reached between Iran and the United States and other world powers to lift many economic sanctions and weapons embargoes on Iran in return for a temporary curb on its nuclear weapons program, Saban told The New York Times that the deal is a “fait accompli” and that the U.S. and Israel “should focus on the day after and cooperate to make sure that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons.” Days earlier, he told Israeli journalist Ayala Hasson-Nesher that it was “a bad deal,” and that he opposed it.

Since then, U.S. participation in the deal was assured when Senate Democrats filibustered Republican opposition, preventing the Senate from voting on the foreign policy agreement.

Clinton, currently the Democratic frontrunner, has announced that she supports the deal and, while serving as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, had laid the groundwork for negotiations between the United States and Iran. 

Although Adelson didn’t comment publicly on the deal, he’s a major donor for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which lobbied and purchased advertising opposing the deal, and in a 2013 panel at Yeshiva University, he suggested to moderator Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert as a warning against progressing with the country’s nuclear weapons program. Adelson rarely speaks with the media, but his controversial statements are much-repeated — at the IAC’s 2014 gala in Washington, D.C., he and Saban engaged in what sounded like a mixture of banter and business negotiation as they discussed on stage what it might take to purchase The New York Times and Washington Post.

Boteach, who was reached on Oct. 4, said that he was with the Adelsons last week to watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, but he said he didn’t discuss either Campus Maccabees or Saban with Adelson. Boteach spoke at the Campus Maccabees’ Las Vegas summit and told the Journal, “We absolutely want to work with them.” 

The IAC’s operations are unlikely to be greatly impacted by Saban’s departure, even if the departure is permanent. Adelson remains the group’s top donor and the group has a wealthy donor base. At its March gala in Beverly Hills, IAC raised $23.4 million and announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Los Angeles that will serve as a community center for Israeli Americans. Its second annual national gala will be in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 17-19. Not unexpectedly, the Adelsons are listed as speakers, but Saban is not. 

Any potential negative impact of Saban’s departure on Campus Maccabees is less clear. The group doesn’t yet have a website, and Brog wasn’t specific about the group’s plans, although it is expected to operate as a sort of umbrella group to help coordinate many of the pro-Israel campus groups in the United States.

“Despite the good work already being done, our efforts to fight BDS could benefit from more funds, more cooperation,” Brog said. At the Las Vegas summit, groups in attendance included more than two dozen pro-Israel organizations, mostly Jewish affiliated, including StandWithUs, AEPI, the Jewish Federations and Christians United for Israel. 

Adam Milstein, IAC’s chairman and co-founder and one of the Las Vegas summit’s organizers, said in June to Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by Adelson, that if leading pro-Israel groups work together, Campus Maccabees will help them get the money they need. “You no longer have to worry about financing and fundraising. You just need to be united,” Milstein said.

With Saban’s departure, Campus Maccabees may be exposed to similar criticisms about partisanship that pro-Israel groups have recently received, particularly concerning the Iran deal, which was overwhelmingly supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, Israelis and pro-Israel groups in the United States. Brog, however, said Campus Maccabees “will be very much within the mainstream of the pro-Israel community.”

“The only people who will object are those who think that BDS is a legitimate critique of Israel instead of the illegitimate singling out of Israel that it really is,” he said.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, gave one of the first presentations at the summit. She said on Oct. 2 that StandWithUs submitted a proposal about a legal strategy to combat certain actions taken by anti-Israel students on campus (such as when a UCLA student was nearly denied a student government position by other students because she’s Jewish), but she said she hasn’t yet heard back from Campus Maccabees.

“Still looking forward to hearing from them when they’re ready,” Rothstein said. “The sense was that perhaps there would be some coordination, better coordination, which is always great. The other side that’s constantly attacking Israel on campus has more of a lockstep mentality.”

Rothstein said she has no inside information about why Saban left, but she had recently spoken with the Sabans and Adelsons and said, “It seemed like there was going to be collaboration across the political spectrum.”

“I’m sure they’ll still push forward,” Rothstein said. “It’s really unfortunate — I’m sad that Haim is not involved. He’s a good guy. I like him very much.”

Haim Saban reportedly pulls out of campus BDS initiative

Entertainment mogul Haim Saban reportedly has pulled out of a campus anti-BDS initiative he launched with fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Saban’s partnership with Adelson on the effort, called the Maccabees, was supposed to show bipartisan support for campus pro-Israel activism. Saban is a major donor to Democrats, while Adelson is a major giver to Republicans. But Saban has withdrawn from the project fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement because of its right-wing tilt, according to the Jewish Daily Forward.

“He didn’t like that Adelson was pushing the group towards funding right-wing groups that are only speaking in a right-wing echo chamber and not towards pushing a message that would actually change hearts and minds,” an unnamed Jewish communal official told the Forward.

Saban has also minimized his role in the Israeli American Council, an Israeli-American organization that he has funded along with Adelson, the Forward reported. Saban will not be at the organization’s conference this month.

The director of the Maccabees, David Brog, denied that Saban has taken issue with the group.

“I can assure you that Haim Saban had no objections to our plans for the Maccabees,” Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel, told the Forward. “Whoever claims otherwise simply has no idea what they’re talking about. Instead of chasing the rumors of the uninformed, please just stay calm and watch what we do.”

Moving and shaking: AFHU award dinner, TRZ Yom HaShoah event and fire safety at B’nai David-Judea

New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) celebrated its upcoming name-change to de Toledo High School — which goes into effect July 1 — during the school’s annual gala at the Skirball Cultural Center on May 17. 

The event honored members of the de Toledo family: Alyce and Philip de Toledo and the couple’s sons, Benjamin, who graduated from the school in 2014, and Aaron.

The family made a gift of an undisclosed amount last year to the school — the impetus for the school’s name change — that will fund an endowment to offset tuition costs, and which has supported renovations to the school in West Hills. NCJHS purchased its 100,000-square-foot campus, where nearly 400 students will be enrolled in the 2015-16 academic year, from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The school opened at the site in 2013. 

Approximately 700 people turned out at the Skirball, including American Jewish University President Rabbi Robert Wexler, Skirball President Uri Herscher and NCJHS founding Head of School Bruce Powell. Musical theater/drama and dance students performed during the event. 

Also honored during the evening was Linda Landau, who serves as vice president of community affairs on the school’s board. She received the Nita Hirsch Community Service Award. 

Businessman Sheldon Adelson (left) joins Adam Milstein at Milstein’s home on May 14. Photo by Moshe E. Elgrably

Members of the pro-Israel community gathered at the home of Adam and Gila Milstein for a fundraising gala on May 14 in support of the Birthright Israel Foundation. 

The event, co-sponsored by the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, featured remarks from radio host and Journal columnist Dennis Prager, and a keynote address from business magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

During his comments, Prager appealed for a need to bring youth back to the Jewish faith, and to give them the tools to combat leftism. “There’s an antidote,” he said. “One of those antidotes, the biggest one right now, is Birthright — sending Jewish kids to Israel.”

Adelson told the 240-person crowd about his upbringing, and how the seeds were planted that grew into his love for Israel: “My father is the main reason [my wife] Miriam and I got involved in Birthright. When Israel was born, he said, ‘One day I will go,’ but he never had any money. When we finally made some money and tried to send him, it was too late.”

Adelson pledged to match every dollar given to Birthright over the next three years, up to $50 million a year. “We want to go from 40,000 kids to 75,000 a year on Birthright. We won’t rest until that happens,” he said.

Miri Belsky, deputy CEO at the IAC, told the audience that Birthright made her abandon her medical aspirations for a career in Jewish leadership. Other speakers included the Milsteins; Richard Sandler, immediate past chair of Federation, and Steve Fishman, a member of the Los Angeles regional council of the Birthright Israel Foundation. Comedian Mark Schiff provided entertainment for the evening.

According to a press release, a portion of the $1.5 million raised at the event was specifically earmarked for the IAC’s new Shelanu program, which offers Birthright trips to Israeli-Americans.

— Aron Chilewich, Staff Writer

At Temple Beth El in San Pedro, activities at a daylong groundbreaking ceremony that drew more than 200 attendees included writing messages on construction lumber. Photo by David Feldman

Carrie Glickstein recently recalled having her bat mitzvah at San Pedro’s Temple Beth El synagogue in 1965. After a bit of nostalgia, however, the 63-year-old’s thoughts moved forward in time during a May 31 groundbreaking ceremony for the Reform congregation that is undergoing major renovations and undertaking a $5 million capital campaign. (Nearly $4.5 million has been raised so far.)

“I love that the community is so vibrant and looking toward the future,” Glickstein said in an interview about Beth El, which was established in 1922 and is home to about 260 families.

Debi Rowe, the synagogue’s director of education and programs, told the Journal in a phone interview that the goal is “revitalizing the current campus.” Already covered in plastic sheeting and yellow caution tape in the lobby, the synagogue is renovating its entire lobby and social hall, reconfiguring one of its classrooms, and, if it raises enough money, turning its library into a hybrid beit midrash/library. It will add a handicapped-accessible ramp to its front entrance and emergency sprinklers to its sanctuary as well, according to Sandi Goldstein, who is serving as a consultant for the capital campaign.

Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and Congress member Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) were among those who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, during which congregants wrote their names on pieces of lumber that will be used in the upcoming construction. Approximately 250 people attended the event, which raised $35,000, according to Goldstein.

Beth El clergy includes Cantor Ilan Davidson and Rabbi Charles Briskin, who told the Journal that the synagogue holds particular importance in San Pedro. Here people rely on the synagogue for “vibrant Jewish life,” Briskin said. George Mayer, chair of a 24-person committee that has been conducting the capital campaign, echoed the rabbi’s remarks.

Glickstein’s father, Seymour Waterman, 92, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, donated more than $1 million to the campaign, according to Goldstein. Waterman said he joined the congregation when he was 6 or 7 years old and continues to be involved with it. 

“I’m happy for the community, and I’m doing as much as I can,” he said at the recent ceremony.

Construction is slated to be completed in February. The synagogue will remain open during construction, although its religious school and High Holy Days services will be held offsite.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

TIMELINE: A history of the Israeli-American Council

2006 — Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles Ehud Danoch invites two local prominent Israelis, Danny Alpert and Eli Marmour, to foster an Israeli-American community in Los Angeles, in part to show support and solidarity during times of war in Israel.

2007 — The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) is formed with $30,000 in seed funding and the vision of a national organization.


The Israeli-Americans: Who they are, what they want, where they’re headed, why they matter

Last November, a group of ambitious Israeli-Americans captured the inside-the-Beltway limelight for a weekend with a large, flashy conference at the Washington Hilton. Among the highlights were billionaire businessmen and political donors Sheldon Adelson, a Republican, and Haim Saban, a Democrat — who had an animated, moderated onstage discussion — as well as appearances by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The conference was staged by the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which formed eight years ago in its home city of Los Angeles and has an expanding nationwide presence. Its conference served, in part, to brand and highlight the existence in the United States of an Israeli-American community that has a unique character, unique needs and unique ties to Israel. The conference, which often felt more like a party, sent a message to its 800 guests, as well as to the scores of Jewish- and Israeli-Americans who heard about it: The IAC is a serious, driven and very, very well-funded force on the Jewish and pro-Israel stage in America. 

And it’s growing at a startlingly rapid clip.

[TIMELINE: Sagi Balasha, the IAC’s outgoing CEO, plans to return to Israel this summer with his family. Photo courtesy of the IAC

The mission is to build a strong Israeli-American community, and strengthen the American-Jewish community and the State of Israel. 

Of course, this mission faces challenges, as well as some internal quandaries. The group is Israeli, but it’s also American. It wants to re-create some of the best things about Israel here, but not so much so that Israeli immigrants who had planned to return decide they can actually stay Israeli in, say, Tarzana. The group wants to connect with and impact the American-Jewish community, although Israeli-Americans more often like to create their own institutions and avoid membership in ones the American-Jewish community has used for generations. 

What drives the IAC?

Two distinct IAC offices occupy one floor of an office building in a cookie-cutter corporate office park in Woodland Hills, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where the majority of L.A.’s Israeli-Americans reside. One office houses the organization’s L.A. regional staff, the other its national staff. Both spaces display Hebrew-language magazines and pamphlets on the counters, and pictures of different Israeli cities and of Israeli soldiers on the walls.

The ambience is Israeli-casual — people are dressed in jeans or Dockers and a few of the women wear skirts. Staffers generally speak among themselves in Hebrew, and there are the ever-present sounds of ringing phones and buzzing email alerts. Five of the IAC’s seven founders still serve on its 13-member board. Three are successful real-estate developers — Milstein, Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff; Danny Alpert owns a jewelry company called Oro Alexander; and Yossi Rabinovitz is the owner of JMR Electronics. As they tell it, in the summer of 2006, around the time of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, then-L.A. Consul General Ehud Danoch encouraged them to create an organization that could unite the large yet uncounted number of Israelis living in Los Angeles to help support Israel, particularly in times of war.

The guiding mission of what was first called the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) — shortly thereafter becoming the Israeli Leadership Council — quickly expanded to creating a more formally cohesive Israeli-American community that could both nurture and perpetuate a sense of Israeli identity for Israelis and their offspring in America, as well as bridge the gap between Israeli-Americans and the institutions of the Jewish-American community. The reasons behind that gap stem from the days when yordim — those who “descend” as opposed to “ascending” in making aliyah — was still the default characterization for Israeli emigres. As a result, Michigan State University sociologist and Israeli Diaspora expert Steven Gold said, Israeli immigrants were seen as “marginal” to much of the Jewish-American community.

“They weren’t supposed to go abroad [from Israel], so they were kind of embarrassed,” Gold said. “Israel wasn’t supportive of them, and the American-Jewish community, which wanted to help Israel, didn’t reach out a lot.”

Israelis who have lived in the United States for decades remember well when, in a 1976 interview televised in Israel, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin derisively called Israelis who had left Israel “nefolet shel nemushot”— “fallen weaklings,” people not tough enough to make it in Israel.

Israeli and American-Jewish attitudes toward Israeli emigres changed in the 1990s, following the influx of more than 1 million Jewish immigrants into Israel from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, according to author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. With these new citizens, the “old Israeli anxiety about demographics began to ease,” Halevi said. Israelis who left were suddenly somewhat tolerable to the Israeli psyche, and, over the years, they began to be viewed as potential assets to the Jewish state, as evidenced by Danoch’s request to Israeli expatriates in Los Angeles.

From left: Sheldon Adelson, Israeli-American Council Chairman Shawn Evenhaim and Haim Saban at the IAC’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Photo by Shahar Azran

Since its founding, the IAC has had one big factor in its favor: wealthy backers, and lots of them. Its co-founders together are worth many millions of dollars. Saban (net worth $3.5 billion) was an early backer, along with Beny Alagem, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills. Both gave $250,000 at the IAC’s first major fundraiser, in 2008. With the 2013 addition of Adelson (net worth $30 billion), the IAC’s pockets don’t seem to have a bottom. 

At its seventh annual Los Angeles gala, which took place March 8 at the Beverly Hilton, the group announced it had raised $23.4 million, including $12 million from Adelson and $1.2 million from Saban. “Sheldon is 10 times richer than me,” Saban quipped to the crowded hall of 1,100 dinner guests, “I said to Sheldon, ‘Listen, whatever you give, I’ll give one-tenth.’ ” Less than one year earlier, in May 2014, Adelson and Saban together contributed $3.5 million of $6.5 million raised at a fundraiser at Milstein’s Encino home for the creation of a Birthright program specifically for Israeli-Americans.

At the March gala, the IAC also announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Winnetka, just east of its current San Fernando Valley offices, which it plans to use as a community center for the Israeli-American community and as the new headquarters of the IAC. The group may also offer office space for other Israeli organizations.

The vision for this community center, although not fully formed, sounds something like an Israeli-American version of a Jewish Federation combined with a traditional Jewish community center — a physical structure open to community professionals, families and individuals. It’s primed to be a major physical and figurative landmark for a community that notoriously “sits on its suitcases,” as Balasha put it.

“People come here with the intention to go back, and that creates a special psychology,” he said of Israeli immigrants. “You will not really try to be part of a Jewish community; you will not try too hard to integrate into American society; you will not spend your money on sending your kids to Jewish day schools, because you’ll just speak Hebrew at home.”

Instead of integrating into mainstream Jewish structures, Israelis in Los Angeles and around the country long have tended to create their own medley of after-school programs, nursery schools, social programs and lecture series, maintaining some mix of both Israeli and Jewish identity independent of traditional American Jewry. 

“They were just individuals around this country, and there was nothing that united them — they were not part of any community,” Balasha said. “Until now.”

Preserving what many at the IAC call “Israeliness” is one-third of the IAC’s mission. For all ages, from young children to working professionals and seniors, the IAC runs and funds dozens of programs that are infused with Israeliness. 

“To identify with Israel [in America] is a challenge, it’s a struggle, and you need to work a lot,” Balasha said. “You want to celebrate with your kids Halloween and Thanksgiving, but you want for them to feel that Pesach and Sukkot and Chanukah are as much theirs — and Yom HaAtzmaut, maybe more than any other holiday.”

For the IAC’s children’s programming, there’s Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which mails Hebrew children’s books and music to 15,000 Israeli-American homes in the U.S. once a month at no charge, according to the IAC’s chief programming officer, Shanee Feig. In June, the IAC will offer Machane Kachol Lavan, a Hebrew-language sleep-away camp in Running Springs, Calif., and Barryville, N.Y. It will mark the camp’s second year in California and its first on the East Coast.

College students have Mishelanu, which sponsors get-togethers and events on more than 30 campuses nationwide, said Nirit Hinkis, the program’s coordinator for the Southern California and Las Vegas regions. And the IAC’s Tzav 8 is a communication system with about 50,000 phone numbers and email addresses that the group uses to quickly organize rallies and demonstrations to support Israel during crises like the war with Hamas last summer. Balasha said the IAC has used this network four or five times to mobilize rallies, most recently in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Las Vegas.

There’s also the IAC’s largest and most expensive program, Celebrate Israel, which brings together tens of thousands of American and Israeli-American Jews to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. About 10,000 Jews (a number the group hopes to increase) have attended the Sunday event each year in Rancho Park, enjoying Israeli food, music, arts and culture on the heavily Jewish Westside of Los Angeles. The IAC’s operating cost for the Los Angeles festival is about $700,000 annually. 

This year, Balasha said, a Celebrate Israel festival in Miami on May 3 drew about 9,000 people, and one in Las Vegas on May 10 drew 3,600. The IAC’s regional offices in New York and Boston plan to have simultaneous Celebrate Israel festivals on May 31. Balasha said the group expects its five festivals this year will collectively draw a total of about 50,000 people.

In addition, the IAC also awards grants to dozens of Jewish and Israel-focused organizations and programs, including the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and the Phoenix Israel Center, as well as StandWithUs and Taglit-Birthright Israel. 

Having their cake and eating it, too?

“There was one woman who told me, ‘The community is so amazing here that I feel less of a need to go visit Israel,’ ” Dikla Kadosh, regional director of the IAC’s office in Los Angeles, said. Kadosh said she thought at the time, “Oh my God, no, that’s not the intention. We don’t want to re-create Israel so much, so realistically, that people stop going to Israel.”

In Los Angeles, though, Israel doesn’t always feel so distant, particularly because of the climate, the Israeli-style restaurants and the concentration of Israelis in certain neighborhoods, and also because of what the IAC has built.

“Especially as our community strengthens here, there’s a lot less of that guilty feeling of, ‘What am I taking away from my children? What risk am I taking by being here? That my children will not be Jewish, that my children will not speak Hebrew, that my children will not have a connection to Israel,’ ” said Kadosh, who was born in Israel, moved here at 6, and has lived in L.A. for most of her life, with many trips back. She said she feels neither fully Israeli nor American, but comfortably identifies with the Israeli-American term the IAC has helped brand.

“I have been told by people who live in the Valley, in the center of all of this, that living here is like the best of Israel, because they can replicate the life that they had there in terms of easy access to the food and the culture and the people, within all the niceties of living a Southern California lifestyle,” said Miriam Alpern, who runs the IAC’s marketing and communications.

IAC board member Adam Milstein, right, with Sen. Robert Menendez at the IAC’s national convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Naty Saidoff, another board member, is pictured in the background.

No one really knows how many Israeli immigrants and first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans live in the United States or in Los Angeles. The IAC says about 250,000 Israeli-Americans live in Los Angeles and between 500,000 and 800,000 in the United States. In an email to the Journal, the Israeli Consul General’s Office in Los Angeles wrote, “There isn’t an official number, but we estimate there are 250,000 Israelis living in L.A.” 

Most demographers and sociologists who have studied Israeli immigration to the U.S. believe those numbers are far too high. Ira Sheskin, a geographer and demographer at the University of Miami, is director of the Jewish Demography Project, which released in 2010 what may be the most recent and reliable study on Israeli-Americans in the United States. Using data from the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample — a sort of annual mini-census the U.S. Census Bureau conducts by contacting more than 3 million households — Sheskin estimated that in 2008 about 329,000 Israeli-Americans lived in the United States, 136,000 of whom were born in Israel.

Asked where some estimates of up to 800,000 Israeli-Americans in the United States and 250,000 in Los Angeles come from, Sheskin said, with a laugh, “Their tuchis.”

“It’s like if you ask an Orthodox Jew how many Orthodox Jews are there in the area — these are always going to be overestimates. Everybody does that. If you ask a Nicaraguan in Miami how many Nicaraguans are in Miami, you’re going to get a number that’s higher than in the U.S. Census,” Sheskin said.

At a certain point, though, the real number doesn’t matter; what matters is that Israeli-Americans comprise a significant percentage of Jews in the United States, and they’re trying to create an Israeli-American identity while working outside of traditional American-Jewish structures, while still infusing the American-Jewish community with some measure of “Israeliness,” as board member and co-founder Saidoff said.

Saidoff moved to California in the mid-1970s at 21. He said he felt like so many Israeli emigres when he left — that he had “turned my back” on Israel, even when he decided he wanted to live in the United States for good. 

“I feel like I’m paying my dues the best way I can,” Saidoff said in a recent interview. “I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.”

Miri Shepher, another board member and president of Life Alert Emergency Response, said she still feels guilty 40 years after choosing to leave Israel. She was born in Tunisia but moved to Israel with her family when she was 2. She then came to America with her husband in 1975, intending to stay only a few years, but like so many Israelis, she eventually acknowledged that it wasn’t a one-way ticket.

 Forty years later, her guilt eased somewhat when Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told her at the IAC’s 2014 gala, “You guys can help more sitting here than making aliyah to Israel.”

“It was the first time somebody gave me that good feeling,” Shepher said. “Maybe he’s right.”

Preserving an ethnic cultural identity for future generations is a fundamental aim of many immigrant groups in the United States. To that end, organizations with some programs and resources similar to the IAC have popped up among Chinese, Italian, Korean and Mexican immigrants, to name just a few. But unique to the IAC, as Gold said, is the “explicitness and self-consciousness” with which the group promotes Israeli culture and the State of Israel.

For example, the group supports organizations such as Israel Scouts and lone soldier support programs, which celebrate and offer help to American Jews (many of them first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans) who serve in the Israel Defense Forces and often make aliyah.

“The goal is to have the Israeli-American second generation grow up here and have such a strong connection to Israel that they visit frequently, that they speak Hebrew like an Israeli,” said Kadosh, whose husband is Israeli and who said her 3-year-old son speaks Hebrew but barely any English. “Their identity is so strong that it doesn’t matter whether they ever lived [in Israel] — they still identify as Israeli-Americans.”

Israeli-Americans and American Jewry

Of the IAC’s three main missions, the one proving the most difficult to achieve, at least in Los Angeles, is its desire to strengthen connections to the American-Jewish community. In Boston, the IAC’s regional office seems to have a close working relationship with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), the name for that city’s Jewish Federation. But in Los Angeles, the relationship has been next to nonexistent since Israelis began moving here in large numbers in the 1970s.

“We have been courting the Israeli community in Los Angeles from the very beginning,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said. “It’s an important goal to engage a large and growing segment of the Jewish community that has not really engaged in the general Jewish community.”

“I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.” — Naty Saidoff, IAC co-founder and board member

Balasha and Kadosh, however, expressed disappointment at what they described as Federation’s failure to pursue a relationship with the IAC, particularly when it comes to the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Festival, which Federation doesn’t sponsor or promote.

“To us, it’s a big barrier to being partners. Getting the Federation to be a part of it is a stamp of approval,” Kadosh said. Becoming a partner in the festival, she believes, would send the message: “Israeli-Americans are a top priority in our community.”

“[It’s] an open sore for us and I think for our entire community,” Kadosh said.

Whether a relationship in Los Angeles between the IAC and Federation develops “all depends on the Federation,” Balasha said. “There are Federations, like in Boston, where we work so closely together.”

Sanderson, though, said, “To expect the Federation to work with them in the way they want, on the projects they want, on the time frames they want, is not realistic.”

He said Federation’s mode of operating, unlike the IAC’s with Celebrate Israel, is not to put “a lot of investment into one event,” but to work on long-term engagement strategies, as they have done with young Russian-American Jews in Los Angeles.

“We think the Celebrate Israel Festival is a great event, but it’s not as high a priority for us as it is for them,” Sanderson said. “I do not judge the IAC for their decision to prioritize this event, and I hope they will not judge us for our lack of prioritizing the event.”

Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s CJP, said he could not speak to the IAC’s relationship with the L.A. Federation, but did say that when the IAC first expanded to Boston last year, they asked for his help in reaching Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans in the area.

“No Federation has done great in involving Israelis in the work of the Federation, so I thought this would be a great way to make a bunch of new connections to the Israeli community,” said
Shrage, who was present at the opening of the IAC’s Boston office. “It would’ve been extraordinarily stupid for us to say no.”

Sanderson said that Federation wants to use what it has learned from its work with young Russian-American Jews in possible future engagements with young Israeli-Americans, and that his team has had discussions with the IAC to that effect. “We’ve had these recent conversations with the IAC about creating a similar model with young adults that we have with the Russian community,” Sanderson said. “[But] one of the big differences between the Russian-Jewish community and the Israeli-Jewish community is the Russian community doesn’t have an IAC — a well-funded organization with strong leadership.”

In Los Angeles, Israelis have their own community institutions, including, for example, the Mati Israeli Community Center, which was established in 2007 and provides Israeli cultural events and activities for people of all ages. For Hebrew school, there’s the AMI School. And as the Israeli-American version of America’s Boy Scouts, there’s the North American version of Israel’s Tzofim, which connects its membership of primarily second-generation Israeli-Americans with youth in Israel. Many Israelis are not accustomed to the structure of synagogue life in the United States — in part because Israel’s Conservative and Reform movements are tiny and largely unknown as compared to their counterparts in America. Balasha said most Israeli-Americans also don’t want to pay the required membership fees for synagogues here. And while many Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., as in Israel, are very loose with membership policies, a large number of Israelis here — many who tend secular — feel those congregations are “too Charedi.”

Separateness, though, according to the IAC’s and Federation’s statements, is not the goal. “If both parties are of good will and are not judging each other, we will find a way to make this work,” Sanderson said. “I’m hopeful — they need to be hopeful, too.”

‘The IAC will be involved in some lobbying’

At the IAC’s inaugural national conference in November 2014 and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in March, the IAC displayed the relationships it has built with several prominent politicians, including Romney, Menendez, Graham and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who spoke at a private IAC event for pro-Israel college students at AIPAC’s conference.

The IAC is currently searching for a director for its recently formed Washington, D.C., council, which Balasha said will be just like any of its other regional operations in providing services for Israeli-Americans. But he said the group also hopes to have a clear picture by October of how it might want to influence policymakers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals.

“The IAC will be involved in some lobbying, like any other big organization,” Balasha said. “But it’s not going to be our focal point. We may have one representative that’s working to represent the Israeli-American community on the Hill.”

What Israelis (who know about the IAC) think

Aya Achimeir, CEO of Debby Communications Group in Tel Aviv, has the IAC as a client, and her job is to get Israeli media outlets to cover the group’s activity in the United States.

She contrasted Israeli-Americans, who she said “never call on people to leave Israel,” with Israelis in Berlin in 2014 who fueled the “Milky” protest, which was sparked by Naor Narkis, an Israeli who lived for a time in Berlin and who encouraged Israelis to move to Germany as a gripe against the high cost of living in Israel. In October 2014, he posted on Facebook the German equivalent of Milky, a popular Israeli chocolate pudding, and said it cost the equivalent of only one shekel in Germany — one-fourth its cost in Israel. Narkis reportedly returned to Israel late last year.

Unlike Rabin’s view in the 1970s, Achimeir said Israel now sees Israelis in the United States as “ambassadors” and “advocates.” Evidence of this is Netanyahu’s meeting with the IAC’s leadership and board when he visited Los Angeles in March 2014. 

“His main message to the IAC was, ‘You’re an asset to the State of Israel. We need you on the frontlines of BDS,’ ” Balasha said, referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Netanyahu said the group received similar messages from former President Shimon Peres, as well as head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, is a regular attendee of IAC community events and said that while his and the Israeli government’s natural desire is for Israelis and Jews to live in Israel, they realize the Israeli Diaspora is a fact.

“The question is: Is it organized or not?” Siegel said. “The natural preference is that it is organized in terms of advocating for Israel, but also connected to Judaism. You can’t do that without a community that’s organized.”

He also said he hopes that the IAC’s success can be emulated in other large Israeli Diaspora communities. “You don’t see that independent organization in Europe, for example,” Siegel said. “[The IAC] could be a model.”

Some Israelis also hope Israeli-Americans can “pick up some of the slack” at a time when relations are strained between the U.S. and Israeli governments as well as between many liberal American Jews and the Israeli government, as Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, put it. 

“Israelis are becoming more anxious about the state of our relations with the world generally, and with America in particular,” Halevi said. “The emergence of a strong, nonambivalent pro-Israel lobby run by Israeli-Americans is something that I think is going to be noted here and appreciated.” Perhaps, he said, Israeli-born Americans and American-born Israelis, as the only two groups of Jews with a “deep experience” of both American and Israeli Jewry, can serve as “bridges” for American Jews and Israeli Jews.  

A mission with a time limit?

The “elephant in the room,” Kadosh said, is whether it’s possible to nurture an Israeli identity among Israeli-Americans in the third generation and beyond.

“That’s the big puzzle,” she said. “We haven’t really addressed [it].” 

In fact, said Evenhaim, whenever the board has retreats, they inevitably revisit and re-evaluate their mission. “We say we need to make changes, and then after a whole weekend we rip the mission apart and rebuild it — we have the same mission,” he said.

Although Kadosh said “it’s almost impossible” to keep an ethnic or nationalistic identity as far down the line as the third or fourth generation, she believes the IAC will endure, in part due to the “revolving door” of Israeli immigration to the United States. “We might move back to Israel,” she said of her own family. “My kids might grow up in Israel and later on, in adulthood, come back.” 

She predicts that in two generations, Israeli-Americans still will be coming and going from the United States on a regular basis.

The truth — and this is the other side of Israeliness — is that even among its leaders, the IAC doesn’t seem to agree about what the future will hold. Kadosh says one thing; Evenhaim sort of agrees; Balasha disagrees — he thinks the third and fourth generation “definitely will not be Israeli-Americans” yet hopes they’ll be active in the Jewish-American community. 

Saidoff thinks the IAC will “morph somewhat,” and didn’t elaborate, but did point out a major cultural divide he sees between mainstream American Jews and Israeli-Americans: “Americans are all about process; Israelis are about getting it done.” He conceded, though, with a laugh, that Israelis “don’t listen much” to outside advice.

Milstein, meanwhile, thinks that in two or three decades, Israeli-Americans will be integrated into the Jewish-American community and will no longer be a distinct entity. “We will not exist as Israeli-Americans 20 or 30 years from now,” Milstein said. “But the Jewish people of America will be by us, and will not be the Jewish-Americans that you have today.” 

Asked how Israeli immigrants in one generation will be active in an Israeli-American community if they integrate into mainstream American Jewry, Milstein said he thinks that by then, Jewish-American institutions will have learned how to integrate Israeli immigrants.

About Israeliness, Evenhaim said, “Some would say, ‘Why would you need it? Why not just have your kids become Jewish-Americans?’ ”

“Because,” he said, answering his own question by saying Israeliness can help Israeli-Americans remain Jewish, “we all know the problems of assimilation with the young generation [of Jewish Americans] — a lot of them just don’t remain Jewish.”

What the IAC will look like in two, three or four decades, clearly, is anyone’s guess. But for now, the group is in the planning stages of its second Washington, D.C., conference, which the IAC will hold later this year and hopes will draw twice as many people. 

For Americans though, what may prove most interesting about the future of the Israeli-American community, and of the IAC, is how one of the country’s newest immigrant groups will make its mark in the United States, and how it will navigate the challenges faced by all immigrants, such as, generations ago, the Irish and Italians, and, more recently, the Koreans and Latin Americans. How this will play out is probably impossible to predict.

The promise and the unknown stem from something Milstein said at the IAC’s national gala last year: “We’re different.”


Correction: May 18, 2015

A quote in which Adam Milstein said “We don't feel American” was not given the proper context and has been amended to read, “We don't feel [100 percent] American.”

IAC goes to Washington … and plans to stay

On the evening of March 1, just before a private Israeli-American Council (IAC) event for college students at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C., it was difficult for two of IAC’s co-founders, Shawn Evenhaim and Adam Milstein, to walk more than a few feet without being approached by attendees.

Some thanked them for their support (both Milstein’s family foundation and the IAC have helped sponsor many students’ trips to AIPAC), others sought advice on Israel advocacy and on their careers, while the rest seemed simply to want to talk.

The post-dinner gathering was an opportunity for various pro-Israel campus activists from across the nation not only to meet one another and share tactics and vision, but also to hear from a few Capitol Hill lawmakers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. 

Coming less than four months after IAC’s big November inaugural conference just a few miles away, and two days after Milstein and Evenhaim announced that the IAC had decided to launch a Washington, D.C., chapter (its eighth nationally), the message was clear: IAC — the largest, if not the only, national educational group in the nation geared toward Israeli Americans — is entering the Beltway and plans to put some of its resources toward creating a federal advocacy arm.

In a March 2 interview at the 12th-floor M Club at the Marriott adjoining AIPAC’s conference center in downtown Washington, Milstein and Evenhaim said IAC’s D.C.-area branch will play two roles. 

First, like its branches in other cities — including ones in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boston — the D.C. branch will serve as an educational, religious and cultural resource for Israeli Americans in the area. The group says it has reached about 150,000 people through this programming, and its state branches already work with state and local officials on a range of issues.

Second, the D.C. office will be an advocacy arm for Israeli-American interests on Capitol Hill. Evenhaim, the group’s chairman, said IAC’s advocacy activities in Washington will not constitute lobbying. Without elaborating, Milstein and Evenhaim referred to visa laws and education as two issues that particularly concern the nation’s Israeli-American community, which, IAC says on its website, numbers more than 500,000 people.

“Our target is much wider than Congress,” Milstein said, emphasizing that the D.C. branch will be more than just a policy arm for domestic issues important to Israeli Americans. “We feel that we have the natural knowledge to be the ambassadors for Israel.”

And that’s where AIPAC came in. IAC sees its membership as assets for AIPAC, and Israeli Americans who are at AIPAC as assets for IAC. Even when IAC got its start as the Israeli Leadership Council — a group of Israeli-born businessmen formed the group in Los Angeles in 2007 and it was officially renamed the IAC in 2013 — the mission was to bring delegations and sponsor student trips to Washington.

At the March 1 evening event for Mishelanu, IAC’s on-campus arm, pro-Israel college students took the stage one after the other, discussing the challenges they face defending Israel on campus and learning from one another’s successes. Two of the speakers were Jewish students from UC Davis who had successfully appealed to that school’s student judiciary to overturn a recently passed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) bill, on the grounds that it was primarily political and thus violated the student senate’s obligation to focus on student welfare.

And perhaps most exciting for the students Sunday night — and a second early indicator of IAC’s networking abilities on Capitol Hill — Congressmembers Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.) stopped by to give remarks.

“I’m here tonight because of the efforts of this organization to rally Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans to support this incredibly decisive effort to stand up on the university campuses,” Royce said.

At IAC’s inaugural conference in November, some of the group’s draws included former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, and billionaire rival political kingmakers Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, who are both major supporters.

Asked what he anticipates will be the balance in the D.C. branch between its normal work within that region’s Israeli-American community and its advocacy efforts in Washington, Evenhaim didn’t offer specifics but said it will operate similarly to how IAC’s other offices operate.

Evenhaim anticipates the D.C. branch to be “fully operational” within three months.

So right, yet so wrong: The truth Sheldon Adelson told us

The media has covered casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s address to the Israeli-American Council, a recently formed organization of Israelis who live in the United States, many of whom have truthfully become Israeli Americans.

When asked what to do about the land and what to do about the Arabs, Adelson said, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. … God talked about all the good things in life. … He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?” 

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) outstanding outgoing director, Abe Foxman, courageously pounced on Adelson’s statement. It takes courage for the head of a Jewish organization to publicly dissent from one of the most powerful and one of the — if not the most — philanthropic Jews today. But to his credit, Foxman did not hesitate.

He said, “Sheldon Adelson’s comment suggesting that it’s not so important that Israel remain a democracy is disturbing on many levels … In fact, the founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state. Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill-serve the State and people of Israel.”

Foxman is right, but we must also concede that Adelson is right. 

The Bible says nothing serious about democracy, though it does have the phrase “acheri rabim l’hatatot, which can be roughly translated as majority rules. And the Torah relies on God’s sovereignty and Moses’ charismatic leadership. But Judaism is not only a biblical religion. 

Any student of Jewish history, even the most Orthodox among us, will recognize that rabbinic Judaism is distinctly different from biblical religion, even if it is its worthy successor. Midrash makes clear that Moses would not have recognized what Rabbi Akiva taught in his name. 

And Judaism has evolved since talmudic times. As Gerson Cohen has demonstrated, it was the genius of Judaism and of Jewish thinkers to acculturate into the societies around them, adapting ideas, patterns of thought, even values from the world around them and incorporating them into Judaism. Maimonides cannot be understood without Aristotle and Averroes, Philo without Plato, Saadiah Gaon’s Emunot v’Deot without understanding Greek philosophy and the entire Judeo-Arabic culture of his time. The Talmud itself grapples with, accepts and strenuously rejects parts of Greco-Roman culture.

That is how our tradition evolved, and that is one of the major secrets of our survival.

Democracy is a concept, whose origin is secular, on how to govern a population. Israel’s founding fathers made it a pillar of the nascent state. It shaped its Declaration of Independence. It is fully articulated in Israel’s basic laws, in its parliamentary procedures and in its Supreme Court. It is essential to Israel’s support in the West. 

I would argue that not only is democracy a value cherished by Jews, by now it has become a Jewish value.

We must, however, concede that Adelson is telling us a second truth that most of his supporters and many of his admirers would refuse to admit. He was candid, perhaps too candid. It is a truth of the left, rejected, fudged or simply ignored by the right.

Israel faces a stark choice. Israel can remain a Jewish state and a democratic state only if it cedes the major Arab population centers in Gaza, the West Bank, Judea and Samaria. The one-state solution for the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can be a Jewish state or a democratic state — or neither. It cannot be both Jewish and democratic.

Israel’s founding fathers understood that when they wrestled with the issue of partition in 1937 and when they founded the state in 1948. The question is whether their grandsons and granddaughters will accept that today.

Adelson’s point was reinforced by an opinion piece published in The New York Times by Israel’s minister of economics, Naftali Bennett, who offers the Palestinians a non-state that will neither control its borders, nor be allowed military control of its own borders, nor be allowed a military. Israel, he suggests, will be generous in building roads and offering economic opportunities and local self-government, but there is no mention in his piece about democracy, citizenship or even civil rights.

It is good that this discussion, which for so long has loomed just beneath the surface, comes out in the open. Those who advocate taking over the territories or even the status quo must confront the issue as to how Israel can remain a Jewish state and a democratic state. They may wish to follow Adelson and dismiss democracy as an alien non-Jewish value.

I am not alone in believing that democracy has been good to the Jews, is the least unjust system of government in history and that, by now, democracy has become an essential and sacred Jewish value.

Let the debate begin.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his blog at

Israelis in the U.S.A.

When your ancestors yearned for 19 centuries to return to their homeland of Israel, and you were fortunate enough to be born there but still decide to move to America, it’s natural that somewhere deep inside, you might feel a little guilty. How could you not? Regardless of how happy or comfortable you might be in America, how could you not miss the Israeli streets that make you feel so at home, the country you fought to defend, the place that moves your spirit like no other?

It would be an insult to Israel for Israelis to feel perfectly OK about not living there.

This emotional dynamic has contributed to a complicated relationship between Israeli-Americans and their adopted country. Traditionally, the rap against Israeli-Americans is that they have been reluctant to fully engage and integrate with the local community — and I can understand this reluctance.

Many Israelis cope with the guilt of not living in Israel by telling themselves they’re in America only “temporarily.” Fully engaging with the local established community would only make their decision to live in America feel more permanent. It would be like making yourself feel at home in a place that deep inside your soul doesn’t really feel like home.

That’s why I felt something very poignant when I attended the inaugural national conference of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) last weekend in Washington, D.C. This was the big coming-out party for the IAC, which was founded seven years ago by a small group of successful Israeli-American entrepreneurs living in Los Angeles. The conference attracted prominent speakers from across the political, diplomatic, academic, media and philanthropic worlds, as well as more than 700 Israeli-Americans from across the country.

There was plenty of buzz at the conference, which meant the Twitter world had a field day. Two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted President Barack Obama on his approach toward Iran. Mega machers Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson shared the stage with IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim and tried to out-hawk each other on Israel. Politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reminded an adoring crowd of America’s undying support for Israel. Actress Noa Tishby and other entertainers added some glitter.

Beneath all the buzz, however, there was some serious business. The IAC’s mission, as stated in its program, is to “build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American Jewish community, and the State of Israel.”

We were offered a Limmud-like smorgasbord of sessions led by scholars, experts and community leaders, dealing with issues such as: “Israeli-American Double Identity: Comfort vs. Conscience?”; “Models of Israeli-American Communities: What Works?”; “Our Stand Against BDS”; “What Is Our Role in the Future Leadership of the Jewish-American Community?”; “How Can Israeli-Americans Strengthen the U.S.-Israel Bond?”; “Social Media: The Ultimate Force Multiplier”; “What Can Israeli-Americans Learn From the American-Jewish Community?” and “Israel in 2048: How Can Israel’s Economy Become One of the World’s Top 10?”

As you can imagine, there were plenty of heated discussions. If Jews in general like to argue and debate, then Israeli Jews take it to the next level. At several sessions I attended, when it came time for questions and answers, all we got from the audience were answers — and nobody complained. Usually, an audience is reminded: “Please, no speeches, just questions.” Here, it was more like: “OK, go ahead and make your speech. We know we can’t stop you anyway.”

But after all the buzz, debates and big statements of the conference, it was a statement that no one uttered that had the most impact on me.

This was the collective statement that seemed to hover above the conference and that no one needed to spell out: “We are madly in love with Israel, and we miss it terribly. Yes, we still feel a little guilty that we left. But let’s stop pretending that we’re going back tomorrow. We’re not. We’re here in America, and we’re not leaving anytime soon. That stings a little, but let’s make peace with that and fully engage with our adopted country. Above all, let’s be grateful we’re still able to do so much to help the Jewish world and Israel — and we can do it in our own Israeli way.”

As much as anything, the IAC conference was a statement on the greatness of America — a country that allows its citizens the full freedom to promote the cause of their choice, even when that cause includes helping another nation.

That is also worth waiting 19 centuries for.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Israeli-American Council jumps onto national stage with a splash

At the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) three-day inaugural conference in Washington, D.C., last weekend, nearly 800 attendees and Washington journalists witnessed the high-profile entrance on to the public stage of what was, until recently, a quietly expanding and well-funded Los Angeles group created with the comparably modest vision of providing educational, cultural and religious resources for Southern California’s large Israeli-American community.

The IAC’s first foray into the national spotlight — and its ability to attract top politicians from both parties and their donors — points to a group on its way to becoming the go-to resource for Israeli Americans across the country and their political voice in Washington.

“We will be a growing community in the United States. We will rise to national recognition and will influence the Jewish community,” said Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American businessman and philanthropist, and a founding IAC board member.

Milstein said that the group’s goal in holding its inaugural conference in the heart of the nation’s capital was to make Israeli Americans a “brand name community in the United States and to make sure that Washington notices.” On the latter point, it undoubtedly succeeded: Political correspondents for top news outlets filled the press section to cover the IAC’s prominent speakers, including former (and possibly future) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and billionaire rival political kingmakers Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson.

Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban and Israeli American Council Chairman Shawn Evenhaim at the IAC Conference in D.C. Photo by Shahar Azran

That Friday evening, as a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton enjoyed Shabbat dinner, Romney told his former foreign policy senior adviser Dan Senor, in an onstage discussion, that President Barack Obama has been “divisive and dictatorial and demeaning to our friends,” and also that Democrats were routed in the recent midterm elections partly because voters felt the Democratic candidates had been disingenuous in distancing themselves from Obama’s policies.

Meanwhile, Senor and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman both strongly suggested they would like to see Romney attempt another presidential run: “It would be doubly refreshing to hear your voice in the public debate going forward,” Senor told Romney as he concluded their discussion.

The following night’s plenary, while modest by comparison, saw Graham threaten to cut off funding to the United Nations if it “turns into the most anti-Semitic force on the planet,” and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer — who was a frequent and vocal guest on cable news during the recent Gaza war — joked that the key to a happy marriage between an American and an Israeli is for the American to “preemptively concede the argument to the Israeli spouse.”

“Then you’ll actually have a chance of having your way,” Dermer said to an admiring crowd. “Now what that means for diplomacy and U.S.-Israel [relations], I’ll leave it to all the sharp reporters in the room to figure out.”

The conference’s first two plenaries, though, were only the starter for the weekend’s highlight: the first-ever public discussion between billionaires Saban and Adelson, two of the country’s most sought-after, and generous, political donors for Democratic and Republican politicians, respectively. While their conversation, which was moderated by IAC Chairman Shawn Evenhaim, at times sounded like a debate, Saban stole the spotlight when Evenhaim asked him what he would do if he were in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shoes and Western powers signed a nuclear agreement with Iran that risked Israel’s security.

“I would bomb the living daylights out of those sons of bitches,” Saban said to thundering applause, striking a tone starkly to the right of Adelson, who only spoke in general terms of Israel needing to “take action” and “not just talk.” Earlier, Saban said that if such a deal is signed, he would come to the “full realization we are screwed, baby.”

Adelson, for his part, provided his own memorable remarks, sharply criticizing journalists in general and particularly The Forward’s Washington correspondent Nathan Guttman. He also cast doubt on the importance of Israel remaining a democracy and called the Palestinians “an invented people.”

Saban, a media mogul, and Adelson, a casino tycoon, then engaged in what sounded like either banter or an impromptu investment strategy session, discussing how to influence mainstream American media outlets when it comes to coverage of Israel, which Saban called “very left-wing” except when it comes to “maybe a bit the Wall Street Journal and definitely Fox News.”

“I wish that [ CEO] Jeff Bezos didn’t buy the Washington Post,” Saban said. “It would have been nice if you and I could have bought it, Sheldon.”

“For $250 million — bupkis!” Saban continued, as the audience laughed.

Adelson responded: “I wish I had known it was available,” then asked Saban, again to raucous applause, “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?”

Saban said he has tried to purchase the news giant, but that “it’s a family business” and would not sell. Adelson, sharing some corporate takeover advice with the audience, told Saban that the only way to get The New York Times would be to bid more than its worth and count on the family shareholders rejecting the offer, which would give minority, non-family shareholders a right to sue for a sale.

While marquee attractions such as Saban and Adelson provided the bang for IAC’s weekend, mornings and afternoons were filled with speakers from across the Jewish and pro-Israel world who talked about sensitive topics, especially for a group seeking to tow the line between American and Israeli and Jewish identities—such as the dilemmas facing a possible “double identity” and how to integrate Israeli Americans into the American-Jewish community.

Evenhaim, in a telephone interview following the conference, said he wants Israeli Americans to integrate within America’s broader Jewish community, but said that integration has not been a priority of the organized American-Jewish community, in Los Angeles and across the United States.

“If the Jewish-American community put that as a priority for them, there probably wouldn’t be an IAC,” Evenhaim said.

At the same time, though, IAC’s goal is to help foster a unique Israeli identity among not just Israeli expats, but their American-born children and grandchildren, too.

“We don’t want to become just Jewish Americans,” Evenhaim said. “The Israeli message is important to us, and it’s important to give to the next generation.”

To that end, the IAC runs programs including Celebrate Israel festivals across the country every year and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which sends free Hebrew-language children’s books and music to Israeli-American families.

“Israel is our homeland,” Milstein said, when asked to discuss the vision of IAC in the context of America’s historical success in assimilating immigrants. “Our relationship with Israel is more unique than Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Chinese Americans — we are different.”

He said the IAC plans to become a “catchall” group for Israeli Americans, focusing not just on Israel advocacy, but eventually seeking to influence national policy on things like access to charter schools and Jewish education.

“Our community has issues that are important to them, and it will be our mandate to advocate for those issues in Washington,” Milstein said.

Formed as the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) in 2007 at the request of Ehud Danoch, the Israeli consul general of Los Angeles at the time, the ILC rebranded itself two years ago as the Israeli-American Council when its leadership realized the need to be viewed not as Israelis or as Americans, but as “Americans of Israeli descent,” as Milstein wrote in the Times of Israel one year ago. Until then, he wrote, “The State of Israel labeled us as yordim [a derisive characterization for Israelis who leave]. Americans saw us as U.S. citizens, and our children definitely didn’t want to be perceived as kids of foreigners.”

Now viewed as a potential asset by top American politicians as well as the Israeli government — as evidenced by the presence last weekend of numerous Israeli politicians and diplomats — the IAC plans to open four to six new regional councils in the next year, in addition to the existing five, and has its eyes on a 2015 conference, which Milstein said will likely again be in Washington, D.C., and, he predicts, will attract two to three times as many people.

Amidst cease-fire calls, Yuval Steinitz says IDF prepared to ‘recapture Gaza’ if necessary

Even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intensified efforts for an immediate cease-fire, top Israeli minister and Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said Thursday that Israel’s army is prepared to dramatically expand its ground operation in the Gaza Strip and even “recapture Gaza in its entirety” if Hamas’ rocket fire and cross-border tunnel attacks cannot otherwise be stopped.

Speaking from Israel on a conference call hosted by the Israeli American Council (IAC), the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs said that Operation Protective Edge, which began on July 8, may be nearing the beginning of its “third stage,” which reports indicate would involve Israel's military targeting Hamas military assets throughout Gaza.

Since Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip on July 17, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it has discovered 31 tunnels used by Hamas to enter Israel. On July 17, 13 Hamas operatives emerged from an underground tunnel leading from Gaza to the outskirts of Israel’s Kibbutz Sufa.

Four days later, Israeli troops were surprised by the sight of 10 Hamas terrorists dressed in Israeli army uniforms emerging from below just a few hundred feet from Kibbutz Nir Am. The ensuing firefight left four Israeli soldiers and the 10 Hamas members dead.

Although international pressure for a cease-fire has increased amid the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, Steinitz indicated that Israel is not prepared to accept a situation in which Hamas is left largely intact and able to rearm itself for the next outbreak of violence.

Jonathan Schachter, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote in a July 12 email to the Journal that such a “time-out” is not Israel’s endgame. That note came when Israel’s military activity was mostly limited to air strikes.

Steinitz said during the conference call that ground forces still need several more days to destroy all the tunnels that Israeli intelligence identified, adding his disapproval of public figures and media outlets that claim support for Israel’s operation, but choose to focus instead on the civilian casualties caused by many of its air strikes and shelling.

“The duty of self-defense doesn’t disappear if the terrorists choose to attack you from civilian neighborhoods,” Steinitz said, alluding to Hamas’ strategy of operating out of homes, hospitals, schools and United Nations buildings in order to both dissuade Israeli attacks and, Steinitz said, sacrifice innocent Gazans “if it serves their purpose.”

Steinitz said that even taking into consideration the U.S. Army’s wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, the IDF is doing more than any other democratic country to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.

Prepared to “enlarge the ground operation” in a “dramatic” manner in order to destroy the rest of Hamas’ military infrastructure, Steinitz showed no indication that Israel is prepared to let up, particularly if Hamas continues to fire dozens or hundreds of rockets a day.

Steinitz’s comments were preceded by those of David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, and IAC Board Chair Shawn Evenhaim. They came just hours after multiple explosions killed at least 16 Palestinians at a UN school in Gaza. Although initial reports blamed Israel for the incident, The New York Times reported that a UN official in Gaza could not be sure whether it was Israeli or Hamas munitions that struck the building.

The nearly three-week conflict has taken the lives of about 750 Palestinians — 200 of them Hamas members — and 35 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Although Steinitz said that demilitarization of Gaza is the only solution that would guarantee lasting calm, he did not discuss how that could be accomplished or why Hamas, which aims for Israel’s destruction, would agree to disarm itself.

If Israeli political and military leaders ultimately decided that reoccupation of Gaza would be the only way to maintain quiet on its southern border, it would mark a drastic shift from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005 to unilaterally withdraw from the territory, evicting nearly 9,000 Israelis who were living in settlements.

That withdrawal set the stage for the ascendancy of Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then violently routed the Palestinian Authority — also known as Fatah — from the Gaza Strip in 2007 in its successful attempt at de facto control of the coastal enclave.

If Israel does decide to retake Gaza or destroy Hamas, one listener asked during the conference call, who will govern the territory and its nearly 2 million inhabitants?

“If we will decide, finally, to recapture Gaza and topple this terrorist machine, I assume Abu Mazen will take over,” Steinitz said, referring to the Arabic name of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.

A poll released July 23, though, by the Ramallah-based Arab World for Research & Development, indicated that nearly twice as many Palestinians in the West Bank support Hamas over Fatah.

Moving & Shaking: Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest, Zane Buzby honored, Aish L.A. Gala

The Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest had its North American semifinal competition on June 17 at The Mark, an event space in Pico-Robertson. Ameet Kanon of Tarzana and Max Subar of Los Angeles tied for first place and will be heading to the finals in Israel in December. 

The final contest is broadcast on national television in Israel and includes 30 winners of semifinal competitions from across the world. The overall winner receives $8,000 and a recording of his or her own single in Israel, according to the competition’s website. 

The Israeli American Council (IAC) funded, sponsored and produced the semifinal event in Los Angeles, which was attended by 500 people. Twelve contestants from across the United States took part. 

Dikla Kadosh, director of community events and volunteering for the IAC, who produced the semifinal competition, said the IAC had been working on the event since September. “It was one of our biggest events of the year,” she said.

At left, from left: Hallelujah founder and producer Eitan Gafni, musical director Tomer Adaddi, IAC community events director Dikla Kadosh, winners Ameet Kanon and Max Subar, and emcee Mike Burstyn.

But it was the quality of the participants that made the evening truly special, she said.

“If the singers aren’t amazing, it all falls apart; it doesn’t matter how hard you work to put it together,” Kadosh said. “It all just came together perfectly. I sat in the audience behind the judges and watched, and I was just amazed.”

The competition featured 12 local judges who, Kadosh said, “had a very strong background in music or who are representative of our community.” The panel included chair of the IAC board Shawn Evenhaim, musicians Misha Segal and Craig Taubman, and Kelly Shepard, department chair of performing arts for grades 9-12 at Milken Community Schools. Mike Burstyn, an actor with a long career in Yiddish theater, served as emcee. 

Israeli music producer Eitan Gafni founded the contest in Israel in the early 1990s to create a stronger connection between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. This year’s event was the first North American semifinal competition. After this year’s success, Kadosh said, “It’s almost certain that we’re going to have two semifinals in the United States next year, probably in Los Angeles and New York, and we will be sponsoring and producing those two events.

“It wasn’t just an entertaining evening, it was a moving evening, because the list of songs are classic Israeli songs. And you see these young people — they’re all between the ages of 18 and 30 — bringing their own interpretation to these classic songs, and the audience was singing along with them. It gave me goosebumps.”

— Cora Markowitz, Contributing Writer

Zane Buzby. Photo courtesy of CNN 

A local hero’s work is getting a global spotlight. Last month, CNN heralded Hollywood director and philanthropist/Holocaust survivor advocate Zane Buzby as part of its 2014 CNN Heroes television special.

Buzby is the founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project (, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that has provided 2,000 Holocaust survivors across Eastern Europe with financial assistance, friendship and more. Survivors in eight countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Slovakia and parts of Russia, are currently receiving assistance from the organization.

“The saddest thing for me is future generations will look back at 2014 and kids are going to say, ‘You mean, there were Holocaust survivors still suffering 75 years after the start of the war?’ And we are going to have to say, ‘Yes, there were, but when we found out about it, we helped,’ “ Buzby told the Journal.

The cable network included her as part of a feature that highlighted 12 Americans doing good works helping others. The honorees are  “everyday people changing the world,” according to

A successful television director, Buzby was inspired to action after a 2001 trip to Eastern Europe in search of her grandparents’ birthplace. The excursion into the shtetl-like neighborhoods of Belarus brought her face to face with poverty-stricken, elderly survivors of the Shoah. Since the trip to Belarus, she has spent years donating her own money and collecting funds to send to Eastern European survivors. The organization became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2009. 

Providing emergency aid to survivors for essentials such as food, heat and medication is just one of many elements of the organization, according to Buzby. By writing personal letters with the help of volunteer translators, her organization also tries to mitigate the loneliness that so many in that community suffer through.

CNN debuted the video segment about Buzby on June 6 and published an accompanying piece, titled “For Holocaust survivors, letters are lifesaving,” on its website on June 11.

From left: Jewish Women’s Initiative associate director Sharon Shenker, Aish Los Angeles honorees Sheri Levy and Phyllis Shinbane, and Jewish Women’s Initiative director Chana Heller. Photo courtesy of Aish LA 

The annual Aish Los Angeles Gala celebrated programs and distributed awards that focus on connecting Jews to Judaism and to each other at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on May 21.

Jack and Linda Nourafshan, Kambiz and Lily Babaoff, and Roy and Nahal Rayn were honored for their date-to-marry singles program, Soul Search, which provides a way to meet other singles and create healthy marriages.

Sheri Levy and Phyllis Shinbane received the Leadership Award for the award-winning cookbook “Try It, You’ll Like It,” which they created with other Jewish Women’s Initiative members, and which raised approximately $25,000 to fund the scholarship program that sends mothers to Israel “to bring Jewish wisdom, morality and ethics into the home,” according to Rabbi Aryeh Markman, executive director of Aish LA.

The event attracted 950 attendees, including 300 singles under the age of 35 who were part of the young professional programs MyAish, Aish Ignite and NextGen, according to an Aish statement. Producer and writer Saul Blinkoff emceed the event. 

Markman spoke of the Aish Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel campus activism program whose trips to Israel for students recently became the subject of controversy at UCLA. In May, a letter was circulated asking candidates for positions in the university’s student government not to be part of such trips.

The evening ended with keynote speaker Charlie Harary, CEO of H3 & Co., an advisory and investment company in
New York.

Aish’s goal is to get Jewish people involved on their own terms. The organization hosts classes and programs for different age groups to promote Judaism, leaving the level of engagement up to the participant.

— Michelle Chernack, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

‘Hallelujah’ brings Israeli song to the American stage

For a country less than a century old, Israel has produced a remarkably deep trove of popular music.  From the pre-statehood years of Shoshana Damari and Moshe Vilensky to the post independence music of Naomi Shemer and Sasha Argov, up to the present where acts like Idan Reichel and Hadag Nahash have found success in Israel and abroad, Israel has always been a musical land.  Israelis have never been shy about competition either, winning the Eurovision contest on three occasions, and it's in that proud tradition that the Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest is searching for the next generation of Jewish music stars.  On June 17th, Hallelujah will hold a semifinal in Los Angeles to decide which of twelve competitors will go on to represent the US at the contest in Israel this summer.

Dikla Kadosh, the director of community events at the Israeli American Council (IAC), which is co-sponsoring the Los Angeles event with Marvin Markowitz, of The Mark, is excited that Hallelujah chose Los Angeles as the city to stage its American finals.  Hallelujah's “existed for over twenty years, and it took a long, long hiatus, and now it's back,” said Kadosh recently at the IAC's offices in Woodland Hills.

Hallelujah was founded by Eitan Gafni, a longtime Israeli music producer who's worked with artists like Mati Caspi  and Sholomo Artzi, among others.  He founded Hallelujah in 1992, and it ran for three years, but was canceled after that due to a lack of funding.  The competition restarted in 2011 and has been running ever since.

According to Kadosh, Hallelujah is not simply an American Idol or The Voice knockoff, it's something special.   “It's not just another singing competition, the whole point is to bring Jews from all over the world and to get them familiar with Israeli culture and the Hebrew language.”

The Los Angeles competition will be held on June 17th at 7pm at The Mark in Pico Robertson.  The twelve contestants, many of whom are locals, but some of whom are being flown in from the East Coast for the competition, will each perform a song in Hebrew which will be judged by a panel of twelve judges that includes musicians Craig Taubman and Misha Segal, as well as people like Ofer Mazar, a consular official from the Israeli Consulate.  The judges will secretly score each contestant after their performance, and the winner will be given a free trip to Israel to compete in the world finals.

Kadosh says the Israel trip will be a special experience for the American winner.  The trip is nearly three weeks long, but according to Kadosh, “they're not just sitting and rehearsing for 19 days,” the contestants will visit Yad Vashem, meet with Israeli artists and officials, and get to visit other sites of interest in the country as well. 

The organizers hope to get a crowd of at least 500 people for the Los Angeles competition and they have priced the tickets cheap at $5 in hopes of making sure everyone who wants to come and see the show has a chance to get in. 

Kadosh says the Israeli consulate has been fully behind the effort.  “They think it's a great idea.  It's a great way to bring people together.  It's a great way to use Israeli culture as a connector.” Though she was quick to add that “This event has no political agenda, no religious agenda.”

Kadosh hopes that people who come will see the amazing artistry and musical history that Israel has produced and that they will perhaps feel more connected to the country.  “Israel's working really hard to get publicity out about the good things we have to offer,” said Kadosh, who thinks the Hallelujah semifinals won't just be a good time, they'll be a great time.

For tickets to the Hallelujah Semi-Finals, visit


Noam Shalit relives his son’s traumatic kidnapping

Everyone knows the story of Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza in 2006 and freed five years later. But what about his family?

The former captive’s father, Noam Shalit, told a crowd of more than 100 people on May 21 that the drawn-out ordeal made him disenchanted with the Israeli government, finding politics came before the welfare of his son. His speech was part of an Israeli American Council (IAC) event in Tarzana.

Shalit said that a turning point in the negotiation process for his son’s release arrived after the Shalit family began relying on grassroots activism to raise awareness for their cause. Still, he did praise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making the prisoner-exchange deal that ultimately led to the release. 

Today, Shalit said, Gilad Shalit, 27, is trying to live like any other 20-something. He is studying at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, avoids the media and has a girlfriend.

“He knows his life will never be the same, but he is reclaiming the life he lost for five years,” Shalit said at the event.

The story did not always seem like it would have a happy ending. Several prime minister-appointed hostage negotiators failed to make any progress on the case, including one that could not read a map of the Gaza Strip, where Gilad Shalit was being held captive, according to Noam Shalit. And there were many distractions — including a war with Lebanon and Netanyahu succeeding Ehud Olmert as prime minister — that slowed progress.

All the while, the Shalit family couldn’t help but remember what had happened to Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and taken prisoner. According to Shalit, Arad’s family told him that the Israeli government asked them to remain quiet and let the government work toward Arad’s release.

Arad hasn’t been heard from in more than 25 years, according to media reports.

The Shalit family decided not to let that happen to their son. In 2010, they organized a much-publicized protest march including a group camped outside Netanyahu’s home, which garnered the participation of thousands of Israelis. The support of the Israeli people, Shalit said, was a big deal.

From left: On May 21, Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam Shalit (fourth from left) is joined by (from left) Israeli American Council (IAC) board member Yossi Rabinovitz, IAC chairman Shawn Evenhaim, IAC board member Danny Alpert, IAC director of community events Dikla Kadosh and IAC CEO Sagi Balasha. Photo by Ryan Torok

“The feeling that the country was behind us was overwhelming. … What started as a lonely crusade turned into a mass movement,” he said. 

Shalit struck a decidedly calm and grateful tone throughout the course of the evening in Tarzana, which took place at the home of Mirit and Yossi Rabinovitz. The latter is an IAC board member. 

The evening, one of many engagements Shalit is making as part of a speaking tour throughout Jewish communities in North America, consisted of a reception, a brief introductory video, remarks by the speaker and a Q-and-A moderated by Dikla Kadosh, director of community events and volunteering of the IAC. Several in the crowd were Israeli-American parents of “lone soldiers,” enlistees who come to Israel to serve in the IDF. 

Woodland Hills resident Rami Ben Moshe, whose daughter, Karen, traveled to Israel and served in the army, said the incident with Gilad Shalit did not deter him from allowing his daughter to join.

“I don’t think any Israeli would not send their kid to the army because of that. It’s like asking an Israeli if they would not eat at a restaurant because of terrorist attacks. … Of course, as parents, we always worry,” he said. 

Moshe, who is  Israeli, said he had attended the event because the story is “very close to all of us, all of our [Israeli] hearts.” 

He added that Shalit’s occasionally anti-government tone was surprising. 

“I can understand the pain. It was a very challenging situation for the government, and in the end, the results speak for themselves,” he said. 

Kadosh, who organized the event, told the Journal that all Israelis feel closeness with the Shalits. 

“There are very few Israelis anywhere in the world who don’t know the name Gilad Shalit,” she said, adding that she would always remember where she was on the occasion of his release. 

“It’s one of those things — unfortunate things, like the JFK shooting,” she said. “People will always remember where they were when Gilad Shalit came home. For Israelis, it’s that big of a deal, absolutely.”

IAC to aid community seders

The Israeli American Council (IAC) is seeking volunteers for its IAC-Care program to assist with several upcoming community seders.

The area seders will be held at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in West Los Angeles (March 30), B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson (March 30), Westside JCC in West Los Angeles (April 11) and Chabad of Northridge (April 15).

“We look for organizations that are already hosting seders for a variety of different populations,” said Dikla Kadosh, director of community events and volunteering for the IAC. “We are bringing our volunteers to help facilitate it, lower the cost, bring some good cheer, some Israeliness to those seders.” 

Volunteers can be age 12 and up. Those who register to take part (which can be done at will help set up, serve, clean up and socialize. They might also receive free tickets through a drawing to attend the Celebrate Israel Festival at Cheviot Hills Recreation Center (Rancho Park) on May 18. 

Kadosh said the mission of IAC-Care is to encourage tikkun olam (healing the world) through monthly programs.

“We’re sort of a broker to help push people to tikkun olam,” she said. “We try to really cover a large range of subjects.” 

The IAC’s goal, according to its Web site, is to “build an active and giving Israeli-American community throughout the United States in order to strengthen the State of Israel, our next generation and to provide a bridge to the Jewish-American community.”