Good can come from every situation, Judaism holds, and so does Irvine's Rabbi Joel Landau. The Beth Jacob Congregation leader has searched for good amid the unceasing bloodshed in the Middle East and found that empathy for victims of violence could be the sympathetic lifeline that tugs American Jews closer to their religious roots.
"On a theological level, God is using Israel as a way to preserve Judaism," said Landau, whose Orthodox synagogue has a membership of about 300 families.
Acting on that premise, in May Landau used Beth Jacob's newsletter to ask congregants to provide financial aid to an individual Israeli family from among the 700 killed in terrorist attacks since September 2000. Brief biographies in the newsletter convey in compelling detail the lifestyle of impoverished survivor families, doubly traumatized by Israel's economic depression.
All4Israel of Long Island, N.Y., provided the newsletter information. Such Israel support groups have proliferated in the United States, with activities ranging from hosting Israeli merchants for local shopping opportunities to raising funds for the Israel Emergency Fund, which has received $349 million in contributions since fall 2001.
Set up by the United Jewish Communities' federations, the fund has underwritten after-school children's programs, security guards and medical equipment. Orange County's residents have donated $636,514 as of June 13.
In a grass-roots approach, Landau's first appeal raised $8,000 for Miriam and Yosef Ben Hanan, whose 21-year-old daughter died in a bus attack last year. Two days after rising from shiva, the couple insisted on proceeding with the planned wedding of their eldest daughter.
Unemployed for two years, Yosef Hanan lost his teeth due to lack of dental care and cannot eat solid food. Their Lod home is without basic necessities -- furniture, hot water, a phone, adequate food or clothing for their three young children.
In June, Landau's appeal yielded $6,000 for widowed Eva Dolinger of Pe'at Sadeh and her six children. Nisan Dolinger, a founding member of the farming community begun in 1988, was shot last year by a Palestinian laborer. Eva then reduced her work hours and pay to be home with her children. Their home now lacks hot water or outgoing phone service; their furniture and car were repossessed.
But Landau's newsletter did not mention that Pe'at Sadeh is located in Gaza, home to approximately 6,000 Jewish settlers amid 1.2 million Palestinians.
The issue of sending money over the Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 borders) has plagued many Jewish organizations in America, such as the Federation, which does not officially send money to the West Bank.
"The money is to exist, not for settlements," said Landau, insisting the effort is humanitarian, not political. "I don't think it's relevant." But Landau said he would provide details on where future recipients live, should anyone ask.
"The program is meant to nurture Jew to Jew long distance," said Landau, who grew up in Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and is the only one of four brothers not to remain there. He last visited Feb. 1 for the 80th birthday of his mother.
Eventually, he expects to share with congregants the impact of their contribution. "No matter how much we give them," Landau said, referring to the Ben Hanans, "hopefully he'll get teeth, but nothing will bring his daughter back."
"Unfortunately, there are a lot more candidates after today," said Landau, shortly after the grisly June 11 bus bombing on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road that claimed 17 lives.
Overlaying a human face and story with every death statistic is the mission of All4Israel, founded in December 2000. The group maintains an online archive containing short profiles and photos of hundreds of victims. The group also buys newspaper advertising using the photos and exhorting readers to remember victims, said a spokeswoman and co-founder, who asked not to be identified because of security concerns
Families of those killed in terror attacks are supposed to receive government-funded subsistence income and an evaluation by social workers. Donations have helped bridge delays in processing before subsidies arrive, she said. All4Israel's individual family reports are culled from the findings of social workers.
Around the United States, about 100 synagogues, like Beth Jacob, have "adopted" Israeli families by providing them financial stipends of varying duration, the spokeswoman said.
So have at least 100 teens, who have devoted a portion of their b'nai mitzvah cash-gifts to Israeli families. Money is transferred electronically into the family members' bank account.
"Getting a check from a stranger, it's a huge emotional boost," the spokeswoman said.
Landau may have to wait to gauge if his effort pays off until the synagogue attempts another congregational mission to Israel. Last year, he didn't succeed.
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