As if they were recapitulating the last half-century of Jewish history, a group of 13 Southern California rabbis undertook a nine-day mission that began in Germany with Holocaust remembrances and ended in Israel with Israeli Memorial and Independence Day commemorations.
The trip's sponsors, the tourism ministries of Germany and Israel and Lufthansa airline, conceived the mission as a way to increase tourism, but the rabbis found deeper meaning in it. The mission's organizer, Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called the journey a "rabbinic version of the March of Living."
Diplomatically avoiding mention that March of the Living dropped Israel from its itinerary this year, Diamond acknowledged that many of the rabbis had encountered "pressure" from family and congregants to do the same. "God forbid that we should feel safe to go to Germany and not Israel," objected Diamond, some of whose extended family were murdered by the Nazis.
Despite the security situation in Israel, he said, "if the Israel leg of the journey had been canceled, I would have canceled the trip completely." In the end, he added, none of the rabbis canceled.
Their six days in Germany included visits to the Jewish communities in Munich and Berlin, a memorial service at Dachau and a tour of the site of the 1972 Munich Olympics where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes.
Standing in the square in Munich where Hitler was arrested in 1923, Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Los Angeles said the group of rabbis could feel the bittersweet combination of what had been destroyed with the fact of Jewish survival. "Wearing kippot, we had a beer in the hall where Hitler founded the Nazi Party," Rembaum said. "But we're here and he's not. The Jewish people still live."
Paradoxically, Diamond pointed out, Germany, with the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe, due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, remains probably Israel's staunchest friend on the Continent. "A Foreign Ministry official told me after a briefing we received, 'Please tell the people of Israel that we care about them,' and I think he really meant it."
For Rabbi Larry Goldmark of La Mirada, the emotional high point in Germany came at the square the Nazis used for book burnings, when "we got a cell-phone message about the bombing in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda. My body was in Germany, but my soul was in Israel, with the deeds of Hitler replaced now by the atrocities of the terrorists."
Coming to Israel from Germany was "a shot of adrenaline" for Rabbi Rebecca Schorr of Long Beach, whose father, Rabbi Steve Einstein of Fountain Valley, was also on the trip. "After all, this is where the survivors came to rebuild."
Three rushed days in Israel included a visit to wounded Israeli soldiers at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where the rabbis distributed gift baskets purchased on the downtown pedestrian mall. A series of Palestinian terror bombings has greatly reduced traffic on the Ben Yehuda mall, and the merchants, according to Diamond, were both glad for the business and personally moved that the rabbis had made the trip to express their concern for Israel.
"Everywhere we went, in hotels and stores, Israelis said to us, 'Thank you for coming.' We deeply felt the existential loneliness of Israel now," he said.
The patients in the hospital included a soldier, whose father told the group that his son was injured "because Israeli soldiers don't indiscriminately shoot people -- the world needs to know that"; an injured girl, who, when she emerges from her coma, will discover that she is blind, and a Druse soldier, wounded while performing an act of heroism and whose Jewish comrades were keeping up his spirits.
In addition to the gift baskets, the rabbis brought with them a shipment of toys donated by the Mattel Toy Corp. in Los Angeles, which will be distributed by mail to families of terror victims around the country by Sela, the Israel Crisis Management Center, as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' $12.25 million special fund for Jews in jeopardy.
In Tel Aviv, the rabbis participated in a Memorial Day service at the Zeitlin School, which is twinned with two Los Angeles schools as part of The Federation's "partnership" program. They also participated in a meeting with Israeli rabbis and received briefings by agency heads and municipal officials, including Tel Aviv's deputy mayor, on other aspects of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv partnership. Then they returned to Jerusalem for a Yom haZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony at the Har Herzl national cemetery and another commemoration at the Western Wall.
"The juxtaposition of Memorial Day, which is taken very seriously in Israel, and Independence Day is a very powerful experience," said Diamond. "It contains the lesson that we would not have one without the other. The events of this year added a special urgency to that."
Given the current situation, would the rabbis go back with their families for a longer visit? Opinion was divided, with some of the rabbis pleading security concerns as a reason for postponing a fuller visit or for leaving spouses and children behind. Others insisted that, with reasonable planning, a trip to Israel now is "as secure as driving around L.A." or urged a visit at a later time to "show support."
Rabbi Joshua Berkowitz of Hancock Park, who has children studying in Israel, struck a different note. "Israel is not Disneyland," he said, paraphrasing Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat in the West Bank. "You don't come home only when times are good. In fact, sometimes you come home especially when times are bad."
Participating rabbis, many of them former officers of the Board of Rabbis, represented all denominations and all corners of the Board of Rabbis' authority, which runs from Long Beach to San Luis Obispo.
The rabbis who participated in the trip were: Diamond (Conservative); Berkowitz, Shaare Tefila Congregation, Los Angeles (Orthodox); Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood (Reform); Einstein, B'nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley (Reform); Goldmark, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada (Reform); Michael Gotlieb, Congregation Kehillat Ma'arav, Santa Monica (Conservative), and Eli Herscher, Stephen S. Wise, Los Angeles (Reform). Others were Gil Kollin, Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (Conservative); Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City (Orthodox); Rembaum, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles (Conservative); Steven Carr Reuben, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, Pacific Palisades (Reconstructionist); Schorr, Temple Israel, Long Beach (Reform), and Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills (Conservative).