January 5, 2006
Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis
There's a worn American flag hanging in the second-story window of Moshe Salem's stately Valley Village home.
Which is strange if you think about it, since much of Salem's existence is centered around Israel. He's Israeli, his wife is Israeli, as are their four kids. Most of his friends in the Valley are Israeli, and for the last three years, he's been volunteering as the president of the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC), a small organization that wants to serve as the central representation of Israelis in Los Angeles -- an endeavor that has not quite come to fruition just yet.
There's more of Israel inside these huge mahogany oak doors, which open onto a marble floor and thick, ivory columns: The walls flanking the entryway are decorated with dozens of colorful hamsas, hand-shaped amulets that ostensibly protect against evil; in the corner of the two story-high living room is a tarnished silver Middle Eastern tea set and several hookahs, and, of course, there's Moshe himself, the 45-year-old advocate for Israel and for Israelis in America.
Although the organization originally began in 2001 as a pro-Israel advocacy group, when other organizations like StandWithUs began to effectively fill that role, the CIC changed direction to try to foster a relationship between Israelis and Israel, its culture and values.
After he became president of the CIC in 2002 -- a term that ends in February -- Salem began working three to four hours a day on CIC projects, such as hosting speakers, sing-alongs, holiday activities; working with The Federation and Jewish Agency; organizing events like the recent Rabin memorial at the University of Judaism; or inviting Israeli soldiers to talk about Israel's care in the execution of missions.
"There is a great need for one central Israeli organization," says Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Shalom L.A., a Hebrew newspaper here. Shor does not believe the CIC has fulfilled that role yet, due to a membership of 5,000 out of the estimated 200,000 Israelis in Los Angeles and a lack of funding, but he says Salem has been tireless in his work.
"One good thing about him is that he's trying. He does give his time and effort," Shor says.
When he's not at the CIC, Salem runs his diamond business, which he started a few years after he came to California in 1981. Like many Israelis here, Salem originally came to America to make some money, never intending to stay. But after a wife, four children and years of what he calls "living on the fence" -- about whether to return to Israel or not -- Salem has come to terms with the fact that they're probably not going back to Bat Yam. Which makes it all the more important for him to try to forge a connection between Israelis and Israel.
"People ask me, 'Why are you doing this, giving your time, your money?' (Time away from work is money)," he said. "You have more substance in your life rather than just getting up in the morning, going to parties, going to the movies," he said.
On a personal level, he said, he does it for his children, too: "I think my kids observe a lot. When they see an article in the Israeli papers, or when we have a gathering at the house, it enriches their life. I think, I hope, I pray that I'm embedding in them Jewish Israeli values that way."
On a more global level, he said that somebody has to do the work that he is doing.
"If everybody says, 'I can't do it, I'm too busy,' then who would do this? If nobody would do these things, then what you're doing is emptying the community life from any cultural or spiritual values," he said. "A community that does not have spiritual and cultural values is a doomed community."