Jewish Journal


April 19, 2013

What Israel means to me


Pinpointing what makes people so passionate about Israel is no easy thing, perhaps because there are so many options. 

It is the Jewish state, the only political entity in the world where Jews are a majority. It is the historical home of the Jewish people, the land of King David and the Temple Mount. It is the religious center of the Jewish universe as well as a holy land to billions of Christians and Muslims. And it is a refuge for Jews from across the globe dating back to before the Holocaust. 

It is a rich, complicated place — qualities that are simultaneously the source of its greatness and its greatest challenges. Actor Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame outlined myriad, yet deeply personal ways of finding meaning in Israel during his opening remarks at December’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala in Century City.



“Because I love Israel, I do advocate for Palestinians proudly and passionately,” he said. “But there can never be any doubt that I am also an advocate for Israel, a country that is perhaps one of the most maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nations on the planet.

“I believe in the right of Israel to exist and to exist in the land where it resides. I believe she is a great country populated by a great and important people. I believe she is a proud and strong democracy in a part in the world where the notion of democracy, of people’s innate right to determine their own fate, finds little company or support.”

These are just a few ways that people can connect to the Holy Land. We asked 18 members of the Jewish and Israeli communities in the Los Angeles area what Israel means to them and — surprise — we got 18 distinct responses. So what does Israel mean to us? Maybe the best way to put it is: Everything.


Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘A family of people’

“When I was in junior high school, I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel outside of Tel Aviv. … It was all about being with a family of people — that cultural environment and the welcoming warmth, and storytelling over dinner, and sitting around in the afternoon having tea and coffee, and the stories that I got to hear that were just about people’s lives. It’s about a lifestyle.” 

Susan Feniger, 59, Kenter Canyon
Chef/co-owner, Border Grill and Susan Feniger’s STREET

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘Planting so many trees’

“I remember getting certificates and people planting trees in my honor for my birthday and bar mitzvah, and we all knew how important that was. I think that was my earliest realization that Israel was a difficult environment and that by doing all the amazing things that were done — planting so many trees — they were able to survive in what was otherwise a pretty barren country. … I think it has probably affected my sense of the environment growing up and actively fighting to preserve our environment in this country and the world.”

Paul Koretz, 58, Beverly Center
L.A. city councilmember, District 5

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘It really changed my life’

“Both my parents are Israeli. I consider myself Israeli-American. … I always just had this strong sense of family and stories and knowing where I came from. And then when I went to Israel, it really changed my life. I felt so connected to the land. I just felt like I belonged there. I also just felt a deeper connection with Judaism on my trip. After my trip — a one-year kibbutz ulpan program — I just decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being involved in the Jewish community and being connected to Israel.”

— Orly Barad, 26, Woodland Hills
Program manager, Israeli American Council

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Symbol of resilience and positivity’

“Israel has always been a second home for me while I was living in [my native] Iran, because my grandmother lived there. We spent all our summertimes in Holon and in summer camps in Israel. … Unfortunately, because I cannot go back to Iran, Israel remains my place of my childhood memories and my childhood experiences.

“I lived in Israel for about nine months after the [Iranian] Revolution. It was the biggest gift I could have had when I was a teenager. … I believe that Israel is the most democratic country, that it faces huge challenges, and I feel that Israel as a country has grown in such amazing and beautiful ways. What it means to me is a symbol of resilience and positivity.” 

Shulamit “Shula” Nazarian, 50, Venice and Holmby Hills
Owner/director, Shulamit Gallery

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Israel means everything’

“We’re all one Jewish people, but the people in Israel are the ones who are living on the front lines. Our job is to keep them safe, and the best way that we can support them is to make sure that the United States government keeps them as strong allies.

“Israel means everything. We waited 2,000 years for our Jewish home. I was born 11 years after it became a state. My role here is to make sure that we don’t lose it. Not on my watch.

Jay Lewitt, 53, Agoura Hills
Pro-Israel political activist

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘An opportunity to apply our Torah’

“I think a modern Israeli state is ideally a source of inspiration and renewal for Jews worldwide, meaning that it’s sort of an opportunity to apply our Torah in contemporary society. It’s an opportunity, and it’s a test: Can we take all these thousands of years of old values and mandates, and all these things we learn about in synagogue, and can we apply them in 2013 in a sort of messy society?”

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, 61, Encino
Co-founder/president, Jewish World Watch

Photo by Andy Romanoff

'The foundation stone of my world'

“I’ve always felt that Israel was like a third parent to me. I went to Israel for my junior year of college and then after that I went straight from college to rabbinical school. 

“I think that in many ways, it feels like the foundation stone of my world is there. And even so, it’s not without its faults and fissures. I love Israel, and part of my love for Israel is the sense that I have that Israel needs me, needs me as a Reform American Jew. I think that Reform Judaism brings the message that religion can change. Israel, as a parent, has given me so much, and I feel like there’s something I want to give to Israel.”

Rabbi Zoë Klein, 42, Carthay Square
Senior rabbi, Temple Isaiah

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Some of the best foods that I ever tried’

“Home — this is first of all. And the thing that I miss, I think, so much is the food over there. When you grow up, there’s a lot of taste in your life that is very hard to forget, and I think Israel has some of the best foods that I ever tried. I take the concept and the food from my country, from Israel, and I serve and I bring it to the local guys.”

Tomy Telio, 32, Encino
Owner, Hummus Bar & Grill

Photo by Joel Lipton

'They always say, “Welcome home” ’

“It means ‘home,’ just as far as it relates to where Judaism was born. When you go to Israel, they always say, ‘Welcome home.’ That kind of touches you in a certain way.

“My dad is Israeli; he was born in Israel and came to the States when he was 9 years old. In the history of my family, and seeing where my dad grew up and seeing where my grandparents used to work and live, it feels like home in that sense, too.”

Avi Bialo, 27, Woodland Hills
principal trumpet, L.A. Jewish Symphony

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘The most wonderful, warmest people’

“My whole family originally was from Russia. We moved to Israel in 1990. I lived there almost six years. … I was 15. When we came, we had nothing. Israelis, our neighbors, they brought us everything. Every Shabbos they would bring us food. They were the most wonderful, warmest people. I will never forget that.

“We chose to go to Israel because we were Jews. … Everyone has a country, so when we were going there, we knew it was our country. It’s not only that it’s our land by the current law, but it’s also by God’s law.” 

Tanya Abrekov, 38, Pico-Robertson
Nurse, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Thank God that Israel is there’

“When I was 3 years young, my sister went to Palestine to get married. My father said my sister is just like the dove that Noah sent out from the ark first and then we will follow, but unfortunately we couldn’t follow because the war broke out.

“Thank God that Israel is there. They brought a lot of Yemenite Jews. And, see, they could have done something like this, too, during the Holocaust if they had been a country. We were like the homeless. Who bothers about homeless people? Nobody.”

Dorothy Greenstein, 82, Valley Village
Holocaust survivor from Poland

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘The destiny of Jewish civilization’

“I have a great-aunt, who is deceased, who lived in Degania Bet, one of the founding kibbutzim in the Galilee. I lived with her for a summer when I was 9. My desire to go was linked with my education, because I was in day school at the time and I’m the product of a very proud, third quarter of the 20th century Zionist education.

“The destiny of Jewish civilization and the Jewish people can never be divorced from the land and the State of Israel. Or rather, not that it can never be divorced, but that it is never divorced — never has and never will be divorced.”

Joshua Holo, 41, Altadena
Dean, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘This is where we started from’

“I have not been to Israel. … I want to see it with my own eyes. I want to be able to experience it with my children.

“Now, because I have converted, religiously I think it means more to me, especially now that my youngest is starting to learn about it in religious school. For me, it becomes more important that they see it, that they go to visit, so they can see what they’ve been reading about, and to see their roots — in the sense that this is where we started from.”

Yovita Pansky, 43, Tarzana
Stay-at-home mom

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Thousands of years of prayer’

“It bridges the gaps in my Jewish identity in that it not only tells the story in the history of the Torah, but it also brings the spirit of the Jewish people into a tangible reality, so that all the things you grow up learning about and being inspired by become reality.

“I remember stepping through the security lines and touching the Western Wall. You really feel this aura. It’s screaming thousands of years of prayer. Amazingly, it’s a collective presence of all the Jewish people who had been in the same place before. Seeing the history and feeling the history really helps you grasp a feeling of God. It’s a magical thing.”

Micah Getzug, 17, Sherman Oaks
Senior, New Community Jewish High School 

Photo by Joel Lipton

'Shared values'

“I just want Israel to be safe and supported by America. First, because I’m Jewish and it’s our homeland. Second, because America and Israel share a lot of values. For instance, technological innovation: We both strive to be on top. And the U.S. and Israel, we treat people with equality. I know that’s a little controversial, but in terms of who’s represented and the whole democratic issue, both countries have that. It’s such a dangerous part of the world, I feel that it’s important that we really support the one nation that really supports our own values and ideas.

Sarah Sax, 20, Rancho Palos Verdes
Junior, USC; president, Trojans for Israel

Photo by Joel Lipton

‘The most visible, powerful symbol that we’re still alive’

“My parents were American, and they were Zionists. They met on their way to Israel to build a kibbutz. … Israel is an assertion of the Jewish people’s will to live, especially after the Holocaust. It’s the most visible, powerful symbol that we’re still alive and God’s not finished with us yet. Just walking the streets of Jerusalem, walking the streets of Tel Aviv, talking to people who have been in the army, there’s a profound feeling of life … that Israel represents.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, 58, Encino
Senior rabbi, Valley Beth Shalom

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘A place of refuge … An unrealized ideal’

“On one hand, Israel represents fulfillment — the realization of the millennial yearning for shivat Zion [the return to Zion], the creation of a place of refuge for Jews in times of need and the emergence of a vibrant Hebrew culture and Jewish spiritual life. On the other hand, Israel is an unrealized ideal. It has yet to fulfill the promise of its own Proclamation of Independence for ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.’ And it has yet to enable the exercise of Palestinian self-determination that is a moral and political necessity.”

David Myers, 52, Pico-Robertson
Jewish history professor and chair, UCLA history department

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘A definite sense of coming home’

“It’s the place that I always want to go, that I’m always missing. It’s the part of my life or my soul that is yet to be actualized and that destination place that is yet to be reached. When I go there, there’s a definite sense of coming home and belonging.

“I feel like I can hear my soul much clearer there. I believe the Torah is divine and the Torah talks about how the holiness of the land of Israel is a level above the rest of the world. Whenever I get off the plane, I cry. And whenever I leave, I cry. … When I’m away, I feel the symptoms of the exile.”

Shaina Kamman, 27, Pico-Robertson
nutrition consultant for women entrepreneurs

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