In a symbolic and literal demonstration of support for Israel, Orange County's Jewish organizations are waging a cooperative campaign to send a bit of new year's cheer to two economically hard-pressed coastal communities near Israel's Gaza this month.&'9;
Using the slogan "Honey for the Holidays," 12 local Jewish groups, ranging from political activists to religious conservatives, are committed to distributing to needy Israeli families a minimum of 2,000 jars of the golden nectar.
While limited in duration, the local project echoes other initiatives to convert public sympathy for Israel into economic action, which appear to be modestly successful. They also reveal the risks and limitations of such endeavors. "I absolutely think this is just a beginning," said Lisa Grajewski, an Irvine stockbroker, who is organizing the honey airlift for the Orange County Israel Solidarity Task Force.
At several different locations around the county, supporters can either purchase honey that will be distributed to an Israeli family or share a tangible connection by donating a jar and buying another for their own home holiday use. The timely ingredient is widely used in dishes prepared in celebration of the new year, Rosh Hashana and the harvest festival, Sukkot. For Israeli recipients, a Rosh Hashana card from the task force is included that says, "We are with you in sweetness and sorrow."
The effort shows the willingness of the county's often-fractious organizations and religious denominations to work cooperatively for a common cause. Even two Christian churches, in Irvine and Santa Ana, expressed interest in providing flyers to their members.
"This is truly a community program," said Lou Weiss, president of the county's Jewish Federation, based in Costa Mesa. A marketing consultant, Weiss recently applied his skills leading a focus group during a four-hour brainstorming session among task force members to organize an agenda. "Honey for the Holidays" telegraphs both moral and economic support.
"To have the greatest possible impact, we'll focus all of our efforts to these two communities," Weiss said.
Sending honey to Israel is akin to sending coals to Newcastle. The condiment is produced by one of Israel's largest apiaries, Yad Mordechai, located in the agricultural region Hof Ashkelon, north of Gaza. The area includes 18 settlements, both cooperative farms and kibbutzim.
To the northeast is Kiryat Malachi, founded in 1950 as a tent city for immigrants from Yemen. Its population ballooned to 40,000 in recent years amid an influx of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, many of whom are unemployed.
The needs of the two Israeli communities are already well-known to some, such as Beverly Jacobs, a ceramist from Irvine and Federation board member. During a visit to Kiryat Malachi in June 2001, she helped sixth-grade elementary students polish their English and supervised a clay project at a senior center, both part of Partnership 2000 programs. Since 1996, United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for 156 community Federations, has tried to strengthen ties between Diaspora Jewish communities and ones in Israel through these sister city-like exchanges.
In that time, 14 western communities, including Orange County, have cumulatively directed $3.5 million to Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi out of their allocations to overseas causes, said Leslie S. Robin, a regional UJC coordinator in Woodland Hills. Steering committees in the United States and Israel establish priorities, such as funding scholarships and camps.
Recently, however, the consortium quit funding economic development to focus exclusively on social programs. "It was too small an amount to make an impact," Robin said. About $850,000 was allocated this year by the consortium, double the amount sent in the program's first year.
Even so, Israel's tourist-based economy is withering under two years of unrelenting bloodshed. Some believe "Honey for the Holidays" could build momentum locally for a buy-Israel program. "Every little bit helps," Grajewski said.
How much isn't clear, but even Israel's government is giving it a try with www.israelexport.org. Anecdotally, at least, some Israeli businesses have benefited financially from consumers who wield purchasing power to make a statement.
"We do sense a change in buying patterns," said Erez Zitelny, a spokesman for Edushape Ltd., in Deer Park, N.Y., a distributor of educational toys made by the Israeli makers Taf, Edushape, Orda, Halilit and Gil. He says sales reflect popular sentiment. Israeli-made goods were "punished" over the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, he said. The sentiment is now swinging the other way, with ongoing suicide bombings. "In fact, in the past two months we show an increase in sales due to the fact that our products are made in Israel," Zitelny said in an e-mail interview.
Jane Scher, of San Diego, founded www.shopinisrael.com last February to counter her own feeling of hopelessness over Israel. At least one proprietor has had to hire extra help to cope with orders from the site.
"As much as they're spending money, they're also writing messages," said Scher, of the site's 175,000 visitors. Many of the 250 retailers, selling products from art to olive oil, are as appreciative of the well-wishes as the new business, she said. "It makes the world a small place," said Scher, who emigrated from South Africa to the United States in 1981.
Like early dot-coms, Scher site has a 14-year-old Webmaster, Matthew Feldman. After that, any other similarities to a commercial dot-com cease. Scher spurns advertising, refuses to track purchasing, collects traffic cumulatively instead of monthly and refused a merger proposal by Israel's export office. She has welcomed government aid in screening potential additions. Feeling vulnerable to sabotage, she's rejected 50 businesses, including some based in Bethlehem and Ramallah. "We couldn't be sure they would have Israel's best interests at heart," she said.
In a sign of the maturation of the dot-com, Scher is scrambling to formalize the site by incorporating as a nonprofit in order to raise capital. Cash is needed to improve the site's effectiveness with a search feature and an additional section for manufacturers, who are eager to add their own links.
Although still astounded by the unpredictable nature of cyberspace, Scher is pushing ahead. "There are very few times in our lifetimes when you can take the lead and have a huge impact in people's lives," she said.
Checks can be written to "Honey for the Holidays" in multiples of $18 and sent to the Jewish Federation of Orange County, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa, CA, 92626. Honey can be purchased through Sept. 10 at the Jewish Federation office and JCC Gift Shop, both on the Jewish Federation Campus; Hebrew Academy, Huntington Beach; Morasha Jewish Day School, Rancho Santa Margarita; Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School, Irvine; Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach; Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana; and North County Chabad/Congregation Beth Meir Ha'Cohen, Yorba Linda.
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