Jewish Journal


August 10, 2006

Mission To Israel

Los Angeles groups raise and distribute funds to assist in caring for residents displaced by fighting


Teenagers sit in a circle on the sparkling white sand of Hof Nitzanim, a beachfront south of Tel Aviv, where the dark blue waves lap at the shore. Behind them, younger kids play on pool and Ping-Pong tables and families sit around a bar, eating and watching a lithe belly dancer shimmy to Middle Eastern music.

There are huge white tents stretching down the length of the beach. It could be a circus or one of those weeklong music hippie festivals popular in Israel during the summer and long holidays like Pesach or Sukkot. It could be, but it's not.

"Bruchim Habaim L'Machtom Darom," reads the blue-and-white banner in Hebrew hanging over the entire encampment. "Welcome to the Southern Site." This is one of the two camps for Israel's refugees.

Although it's not exactly what you'd picture when you hear refugee camp; though it's not the type of images you see these days plastered on television showing Sudanese families on the road or displaced Lebanese families, Israel's northern citizens are refugees of war just the same.

They say that Israel is a place where a man might push you over on the bus to get to his seat and break your leg, but he will drive you to the emergency room and stay up with you all night to make sure you are all right -- better than all right, actually.

In other words, Israel watches out for her own.

"Israelis, no matter how profound the problem, they deal with it," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who visited Israel last week with Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Meir May, to donate money and visit the north. "So you don't see what you see on TV in Beirut, because Israeli people took care of their own."

In the current war, which began July 12, more than 1,400 rockets have fallen on the northern cities, dozens of Israelis have died and thousands of people have been displaced.

All over the country, the government, entire communities and private individuals are trying to accommodate the refugees, or for those who haven't left their homes, to offer some relief for a day or two.

But this is not an effort that comes cheaply. That's why much of the money Los Angeles groups have raised and brought to Israel in the last 10 days has gone to helping refugees in the north, as well as the soldiers fighting to defend them, the hospitals taking care of them and all the astounding peripheral costs of war.

Take this beach campground at Nitzanim, a community that is also home to Gaza's resettled Jewish communities from last year's disengagement. For the last three weeks, the camp, funded by Russian Israeli billionaire Arkady Gaidamak housed more than 5,000 people. Although it might look like a party, in reality the 100-degree weather, the thick humidity, the lack of privacy -- the reality of being dislocated -- all starts to wear.

"I've had enough already," said Yulia Zitmomirson, a 10th-grader from Karmiel. She'd been here for two weeks, and it was fun hanging out with her friends, meeting new people -- there are about 600 kids under 18 here -- but the bathrooms, the showers, the food, the overcrowding, it's time to go. Not home, not yet, but to relatives in the center of the country.

When StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel advocacy and education group originating out of Los Angeles, planned its mission to Israel four months ago, it had no idea that mission members would be visiting this Israeli refugee camp on the beach to donate books and toys and money and other sundries here. They had no idea they'd be serving lunch to a group of Bedouin children from the north who were at Superland amusement park in Rishon Leztiyon for the day. As a matter of fact, the group brought in 250 kids from the north to the park for the day at a cost of $5,000-$6,000. They didn't know they'd be spontaneously sponsoring and attending the birthday party of a soldier wounded in Lebanon.

"We were going to do Jeep rides and visit wineries up north, and now it's become a solidarity mission," said Roz Rothstein, co-founder of StandWithUs (which sponsored this reporter's trip). The 10-day mission also met with politicians, media, Middle East experts and army spokespeople, as originally scheduled, in order "to create good solid ambassadors who will educate their communities," Rothstein said.

But as the war broke out a week before the scheduled departure, the intended group of more than two dozen people became a dozen, and their trip went up north to Haifa to witness Katyusha damage, to the south to Sderot to witness the many Qassams fired from Gaza and around the country to donate money, toys and goods to refugees, soldiers and their families.

Not all Los Angeles missions were refashioned to fit the war. Some were emergency missions created within mere days after the war broke out. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple raised about $1 million dollars after an appeal in synagogue and took 43 people on a three-day mission to Israel to distribute it.

Days before the mission, they contacted an army major to find out what was needed. Then they went to Target in Los Angeles and purchased $5,000 worth of supplies, which were packed in about 30 boxes and six duffel bags the night before the trip. The supplies included socks, army briefs, lip balm, Ace bandages, antibiotics, cold compresses, green T-shirts, soaps -- all things the combat units were desperate for and couldn't receive immediately.

But that's the type of war it is -- unplanned and costly.

"It's a reminder of how much Israel needs," Wolpe told The Journal. "People were not only grateful for our money, they were grateful for our presence. The tears and thank yous of soldiers who are on the border of Gaza, who are up in the north -- they don't know that there are people in Los Angeles who care."

Wolpe's group, which included Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss (see story on page 12), visited Elyakim army base in the north, Haifa and its mayor, northern refugees in summer camp in Ashkelon sponsored by Friends of the IDF (a charity to which Sinai Temple donated the bulk of its money) and bases in the south, where the sound of Qassam rockets and shooting peppered the air. Wolpe is considering leading another mission here, and he hopes synagogue trips like his and that of Stephen S. Wise Temple this week will inspire other Los Angeles synagogues to go to Israel.

The Wiesenthal Center also raised a considerable amount of money in a short time -- $640,000, a third of which came from a 72-hour Internet campaign.

They went to Nahariya City Hall to meet Mayor Jackie Sabag but were shuttled underground when the siren sounded -- incoming Katyushas. Watching the operation from underground -- the maps, the tracking of the Katyushas and the families -- was incredible, Cooper told The Journal. But what was more incredible, Weiss said, was watching the rabbis in action, taking care of others' needs.

"I went with them to a store-front help center in Tsfat, and there's a guy who is giving out food and mattresses and diapers to the elderly, who can't move or help themselves," Weiss said. "Spread out in layers over the conference table were papers and lists of which person is getting which mattress and which blanket is going where. Rabbi May asked, 'Do you have a computer?' And then wrote them a check to buy one."

That's how the rabbis disbursed money -- to the community of Beit Shemesh, which was hosting some 500 families from the north, to a volunteer who takes care of wounded soldiers, to Rambam Hospital.

"I don't think it's fully sunk in yet to the people of the Diaspora just how profoundly the economic and social dislocation is and how many people have been impacted in northern Israel yet," Cooper said.

Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, who accompanied the Sinai group for part of the time, also wants to bring a broad coalition of people back to Israel as soon as possible. Fishel went to discuss some Federation funded projects, such as the renovation of bomb shelters around the country, which will cost about $9 million dollars.

He also spent the day at Rambam Hospital up north, which is on the front line for the war wounded. But missiles were flying, and he spent the day underground in the hospital, watching wounded come in from Lebanon, injured civilians being brought in, worried children in day care there and hospital staff dealing with battle fatigue and stress.

"It was one experience after another," he said. "Someone asked me, 'Were you afraid?' But then you begin to understand how abnormal this situation is. How do people live like this on an ongoing basis, and how do you convey this to people in Los Angeles who are miles away and don't understand what it means to be at risk on an ongoing basis?"

For Fishel, for Wolpe, for Rothstein, all leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the answer is to spread the word, to hold parlor meetings, to talk in synagogue (Wolpe will be speaking about his trip Aug. 11 and 12), to donate and collect money -- The Federation is starting a major campaign -- and to come back to Israel.

"This trip makes me want to go home and tell people that they don't understand if they don't come here, and it is their obligation to be here," Wolpe said. "This is the tax we have to pay for living here [in America]. Jews have to come here because you can't understand the state if you're not here."

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