November 20, 1997
Above, the site of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination has beenturned into a public memorial. Left, Rabin's son, Yuval, listening toa mission speaker.
Photos by Ruth Stroud
The largest Israeli mission ever launched by the Jewish FederationCouncil of Greater Los Angeles, and the biggest North Americancontingent this year, returned home last week, with organizers in astate bordering on euphoria and participants exhausted but mostlypleased with their experience.
"It was everything I hoped it would be and more," said FederationExecutive Vice President John Fishel.
From opening ceremonies at the site of Yitzhak Rabin'sassassination in Tel Aviv to a closing that brought the 430 Americanvisitors together with hundreds of young soldiers at a rock concerton a military air base, participants -- more than half visitingIsrael for the first time -- took few breathers from the tightlypacked schedule.
For most, it was more than mere sightseeing; it was an educationin the complex politics, history and social issues of this youngstate. Perhaps the most compelling issue for the Los Angeles Jewishcontingent was the so-called conversion bill, currently pending inthe Knesset.
The measure would, among other things, invalidate conversions toJudaism performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis, butwouldn't affect non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad.Ironically, the effect of the law would be to maintain the status quothat has existed since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.Still, it has earned the ire of many Jews throughout the UnitedStates, where the vast majority of those who are affiliated are notOrthodox.
It has also become a major fund-raising issue for organizations,such as the Federation, that raise substantial amounts of money forIsrael (the Federation spends most of its funds in Los Angeles andsays money spent in Israel goes mostly toward social-serviceprojects, refugee resettlement and similar nonpolitical efforts).Although the majority of Israeli Jews consider themselves secular,the Reform and Conservative movements are still insignificant in thestate, and most Israelis have difficulty understanding why AmericanJews are so upset by the bill.
In speeches that were widely covered by the local andinternational media, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and EhudBarak, the leader of the Labor opposition, addressed members of themission. And about 20 Federation lay and staff leaders met withseveral Knesset members representing Labor, Likud, the NationalReligious Party, Moledet and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah. Most favored someform of compromise. Barak, for the first time, stated his intentionto oppose the conversion bill if it came up for a vote.
Netanyahu turned somewhat pale when the entire Los Angelesdelegation rose to applaud Federation President Herb Gelfand'sstatement that the group had come to Israel not only to celebrate thecountry's 50th anniversary but to ask him to oppose the conversionlaw.
"Non-Orthodox Jews find it difficult to accept that Israel can bethe spiritual homeland of the Jews, yet tell them that a particulartype of Jew is inauthentic," Gelfand said. "It makes us feel we arein some way delegitimized, as are our children and grandchildren. Itgives us a great deal of pain."
"All Jews, to me, are legitimate," the prime minister said to theLos Angeles group, stressing his support for a committee that iscurrently seeking to find a compromise between the three majorreligious streams in Israel. "All members of my coalition, fromSharansky to Shas, said [they] want to do this."
"I think it made a difference that we came, because Netanyahu saidwhat we all wanted to hear," said Larry Scharf, a member of theConservative Temple Beth Am group. "In today's divisive climate inIsrael, this is a big issue." Scharf, 76, said that his concern overthe conversion bill, and the Who is a Jew? issue it raises, was amajor reason he wanted to come on the mission.
In addition to Netanyahu and Barak, mission members heard fromYuval Rabin, the son of Yitzhak Rabin, in a first-day ceremony thatmarked both the beginning of the trip and the eve of the secondanniversary of his father's murder. Thanking the Americans for comingto Israel at a time when many had canceled trips there because offears of terrorism, Rabin told the somber assembly gathered at theopen-air plaza (renamed in honor of the fallen prime minister) thatassassin Yigal Amir "not only killed my father; he also killed thepeace process."
While politics and Israel are inextricably linked, most missionparticipants came for personal reasons. Phyllis Sklar traveled fromNew York state and joined her friend Dr. Nayereh Khankhanian ofBeverly Hills because she had never been to Israel and wanted to seethe sights and learn more. "In general, I'm impressed," said Sklar,who toured with the Valley Beth Shalom contingent. "I can't get overwhat the Israelis have done in 50 years."
For some, visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem were emotionalhigh points. At a Yiskor service at Yad Vashem, Saul Goldfarb foundhimself remembering all those he had lost, including his father, whohad seen his own parents killed by the Cossacks as he hid under atable. "I didn't realize until then that I am the child of asurvivor, although not of the Holocaust," said Goldfarb, a first-timevisitor to Israel and chief executive officer of Gateways Hospitaland Mental Health Centers.
For Irving and Eleanor Garvin of Westlake Village, who were makingtheir 17th trip to Israel, it was important to show support for theJewish state during a difficult time and not to be dissuaded by thethreat of terrorism. "We don't live frightened," Irving Garvin said.
Several participants had second thoughts in the months leading upto the trip, after suicide bombings shattered lives and confidence inthe streets of Jerusalem. But, once in Israel, safety concerns seemedto evaporate -- except for well-founded fears of erratic localdrivers.
The Nov. 1-10 trip brought participants from the modern city ofTel Aviv, to the ancient cities of Caesarea and Safed, to the bordersof three Arab states (and, for some, an excursion into Jordanitself), to East and West Jerusalem, and, finally, to the surpriseconcert at a military air base south of Tel Aviv. They met with highschool students, dined in private homes in Tel Aviv, danced onkibbutzim, visited the Western Wall, the controversial Hasmoneantunnel and Yad Vashem. Some visited a kibbutz that had served ascover for a secret ammunition factory between 1945 and 1948.
Each of the 11 touring groups (separated by bus) had its own dailyitinerary, with individual groups visiting a Golan winery, an Arabtown in East Jerusalem, the Christian quarter in the Old City and anOrthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. One bus headed south to Beershebaand Gaza. Five state legislators and two members of Los Angeles MayorRichard Riordan's office joined the Jewish Community RelationsCommittee group.
The mission, more than a year in the planning, was chaired by Evyand Marty Lutin, directed by Fredi Rembaum, coordinated by MaxineMeyer, and overseen in Israel by Marty Karp, director of theFederation's Jerusalem-based Israel Office. Mission participants, whowere asked to make at least a small contribution in addition to feesfor the trip, pledged more than $1.5 million, a figure that farexceeded expectations, said 1998 Campaign Chair Sandy Gage.
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