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JewishJournal.com

May 15, 2008

Polished Diamonds

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/polished_diamonds_20080516

One of the benefits of the creation of the State of Israel is the creativity and industry of the Israeli people ... living in Los Angeles.

Yes, the Zionist ideal is that all Jews would move to Israel, and those born there would grow up to be proud citizens of a noble land, etc., etc.

But people have a funny way of compromising ideology. Their all-too-human needs and desires trump platforms and philosophies. So for as long as there's been an Israel, there's been an Israeli Diaspora in Los Angeles. And as long as there's been an Israeli Diaspora, we pure Angeleno Jews have treated them as something less than full members of the Tribe, and we have done so with the full blessing of the government of the State of Israel itself.

But enough of that. Israelis in Los Angeles are an underused, underappreciated Jewish communal resource. It is time we embrace the people we've been treating as outsiders.

"They look at us Israelis as barbaric," said Eli Tene, speaking of the Ashkenazic establishment here. "But we've been here 10, 20 years. We're motivated. We're successful. There are enough of us to set an example."

The policy of successive Israeli governments has been to either denigrate or ignore yoredim. The Hebrew word for Israeli Jews who leave Israel, "yoredim," literally means "those who descend" and has always carried a pejorative connotation.

In 1976, Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called emigrants "the offspring of weaklings." Israel encouraged organized Diaspora communities not to offer them services. If you welcomed them or helped them, went the thinking, they might stay.

It turns out, welcome or not, they didn't just stay, they -- like waves of Jewish immigrants before them -- thrived.

But even as Israeli Jews settled, grew businesses and raised families, Los Angeles Jews maintained a fixed, negative image of the newcomers as coarse, striving -- pretty much the image German Jews had of the Eastern European Jews who arrived en masse at the turn of the last century.

But Tene and his peers want to change that. He is a co-founder of the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC), a new group of successful businesspeople who use their money and influence to promote Israel and encourage other Israelis to get involved in philanthropy.

Money isn't an obstacle: Tene estimates the average net worth of members at $15 million-$20 million. He and I lunched at a fancy restaurant near the Woodland Hills offices of Peak Capital Group, a multimillion dollar real estate investment business Tene runs. I let him pick up the check.

I first noticed the ILC when I attended its Feb. 26 "Live for Sderot" concert at the Wilshire Theatre: glitzy entertainment, a largely Israeli crowd pulling up in new Mercedes and Lexuses. I thought, Hmmm, these aren't your abba's Israelis.

"Live for Sderot" was, said ILC executive director Shoham Nicolet, their coming out event.

"One of the differences is that this time we initiated the program and led it," Nicolet said, "We weren't guests. Until now we've had to apologize for being Israeli in L.A."

There have been, and continue to be, other Israeli-led initiatives in Los Angeles. Most notable are the Israel Film Festival, this year to be held June 11, and this Sunday's Israel Independence Day Festival, which attracts some 30,000 people to Woodley Park each year.

But ILC operates on a different level. It has come about at a time when Israelis in the Diaspora have equaled or surpassed their American counterparts: Last time I checked, the No. 1 movie in the country was "Iron Man," a Marvel Studios production from Israeli-born Avi Arad.

ILC's members include leading businessmen like Adam Milstein, Shawn Evenheim and Benny Alagem. Tene said while their Israeli compatriots produced this Sunday's festival, it was a call from a close ILC friend of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that ensured the governor would be there, too.

The Feb. 26 Sderot concert raised money for a computer-assisted learning program that will enable children in the rocket-battered southern Israeli town to study in the relative safety of their homes. ILC also brought a dozen youths from Sderot to L.A. to meet with the Jewish community here and to relax, and they also arranged for 10 children whose fathers or brothers were killed in the Second Lebanon War to visit Los Angeles, both for fun and to speak with Israelis here about their loved ones' sacrifice. "We want to create Israeli Zionists," said Tene, who was born in Ashdod and came to the States in 1986 after serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

"Israelis here have double duty, " said Tene, then he used a word that means "reserve army duty" in Hebrew: "They need to do their miluim in America. It's not about guilt. We want to do good."

But, you'll say, this is bad for Israel. How can Israel compete and thrive if so many of its entrepreneurs leave? How can we who are committed to Israel at 60, at 70, at 100, condone such behavior?

Well, for one thing, we don't have much moral standing on the issue -- it's not like most of us are moving there. Over the past six years, about 350 L.A. Jews have moved to Israel, according to the group Nefesh b'Nefesh. Meanwhile, there are between 30,000 and 150,000 Israelis and children of Israelis living in the region (the numbers vary wildly depending on whether you ask professional demographers or the Israeli consulate). It seems inevitable that Israel's most valuable exports, along with polished diamonds, citrus and high-tech, are its people.

But Tene told me that he's not convinced that the Jewish establishment here fully realizes this. He described relations between his organization and the local Jewish Federation as -- historically -- somewhat less than warm and supportive. But he credited the new Federation CEO Stanley Gold with making a proactive effort to change that. In a front-page interview with the local Hebrew-language weekly, Shavua Yisraeli, Gold reached out to Israelis, inviting them to get involved.

That, Tene said, is a good sign.

"We need to create Israelis who belong to the community," he told me. "For two reasons: So we can preserve the next generation, and so we can create something good for Israel. If we can't work together to educate the next generation of Israelis who come here, we're going to lose them forever."

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