Andrew Carter, a participant of Operation Unity, a program that brings minority Los Angeles high school students to live on an Israeli kibbutz for six weeks, never felt as accepted as he did in Israel. No one treated him differently because of his color, he said, and the minute he got off the plane, "Everyone wanted to hug you."
Whether or not his experience is shared by other visitors to Israel, it points to a general attitude of acceptance for people of different cultures and ethnicities found in Israel -- an attitude that a group of Californian legislators, participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Annual Legislators Mission, also encountered and commended.
The Legislators' Mission was coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Federation to bolster elected officials' relations with the Jewish community in California, to strengthen their understanding of Jewish culture and modern Israel and to share the struggles common to both regions. Together with a group of Jewish lay leaders, they toured Israel extensively and learned of the Jewish state's current political, economic and cultural developments and realities. It's an experience, said JCRC executive director Michael Hirshfeld, that strengthens the ties of legislators to Israel, and the L.A. Jewish community to its representatives.
Participating legislators included Assemblyman Jim Battin, Liet. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, Deputy Councilman Adi Lieberman, Assemblywoman Gloria Romero and Assemblywoman Kevin Shelley.
The topic of tolerance reached the fore at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem where the legislators were joined by the participants of Operation Unity, a program designed to give minority students a lesson in unity and co-existence.
"A kibbutz is an ideal model for the students to learn about people working together and multicultural education because it's a microcosm of a community," said Cookie Lommel, who was inspired to found Operation Unity after the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991.
Part of the appreciation for diversity in Israel is an outcome of the priority Israel places in the successful absorption and integration of immigrants.
"Israel has a really forward looking and forward thinking way of absorbing immigrants," remarked March Firebaugh, assemblyman of the southeast Los Angeles district, which has a predominantly Latino population. The systematic way Israelis teach Hebrew as a second language and offer assistance to immigrants, for example, set an example for California, said Firebaugh.
Yad Vashem proved to be a pivotal stop for the mission participants and students. The topic of the Holocaust poignantly demonstrated the challenges that Jews have faced in the past, the importance of a Jewish state and the gross consequences of intolerance, an issue that the multi-cultural societies of California, and now Israel, must deal with regularly.