To say that Shimon Erem deserves to receive the Distinguished Community Service Award from the Council of Israeli Community (CIC) for his work on behalf of Israel seems, upon meeting him, like an understatement. This man has not just worked for but literally fought for, lobbied on behalf of and financially supported Israel for more than six decades. One would be hard-pressed to find such a devoted American-born Zionist.
The CIC will present the award at this year's Israeli Festival on Sunday, April 21, in Encino. Also being honored are entertainer Pini Cohen and festival volunteers Alon Kaspi, Yehuda Hagoel and Gadi Efrat.
Erem was born in Lithuania in 1922, the son of a government official. When he was 1, the family left Lithuania and settled in Germany before moving to then-Palestine in 1925, where Erem later served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during World War II.
Toward the end of the war, the brigade was stationed in Northern Italy as peacekeepers. It was then that Erem found out about the Shoah -- an incident that would mark his destiny.
"One day I was in an Austrian city called Klagenfurd," he recalled. "It was on a lake, a beautiful place. There were a group of us [from the brigade] there with our Star of David on our sleeves, and suddenly, people approached us and said, 'We were slave workers in Poland and we are having a party tonight -- would you come?' And we said sure."
At the party, they were approached by a blonde who told them about the gas chambers and death camps; she herself had been saved because she looked gentile. Erem immediately left, and then made a trip to Germany to see the camps for himself. "I said, after that, it is time to start our war."
Erem spent many years as a clandestine Nazi hunter. His undercover work eventually made him a key activist in Israel's War of Independence, during which he smuggled both arms and refugees into the country. He has continued to fight for Israel in various capacities ever since.
Several people who know him mentioned an incident that they say characterizes this sweet but sharp man.
"I remember he stood up at this one meeting we were attending and said, 'The first thought I have when I wake up is: How can I help Israel today?'" recalled Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, president of the CIC's steering committee. "It just made such an impression on all of us."
Since moving to the United States in 1970 with his second wife, Danielle, Erem has spent much of his time acting as a bridge between the Israeli community and what one might call the Los Angeles Jewish establishment. In the 1980s, he was head of the Shalom chapter of B'nai B'rith, a primarily Israeli group. He went on to become president of the West Coast Region of B'nai B'rith. Currently, he serves on the national board of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and he is actively involved with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational organization addressing the security requirements of the U.S. and Israel and the cooperative-strategic relationship between the two countries.
During the last 10 years, he extended his work to create understanding between American Jews and the U.S. Christian community. Erem said when he first became involved in AIPAC, he was disturbed by the fact that, while the organization was very effective in certain respects in Washington, D.C., he kept hearing from members of Congress that their constituents did not understand why Israel requires American funding.
So Erem became an unofficial ambassador of Israel to the Christian community. His experiences with pastors led him to a rather disconcerting observation: that it is often easier to draw support for Israel from Christians than from Jews. Erem said one of his primary concerns is that the Israeli community has not yet found its place within the Jewish establishment.
"Leaders in the Israeli community need to become leaders in the Jewish community," he said. If Israelis do not become involved, they will not be able to fulfill the obligation of broadening activities as far as Israel is concerned."
Similarly, Erem would like to see more support from the greater Los Angeles community for Israeli events and activities like the Israeli Festival. He said he is particularly disappointed in the lay leadership of Jewish organizations, who send staffers to support the festival or to rallies like the one held April 7 in front of the Federal Building but who do not show up themselves.
"I remember that in every demonstration against the British administration in Palestine, you would see [David] Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, the heads of the Haganah," he said. "I haven't seen at any demonstration here that kind of leadership from the Jewish community. I know their heart is in the right place and they care, but still I want to see them there."
To see 100 lay leaders of The Jewish Federation and the Valley Alliance show up at the Israeli Festival -- that, for a man like Erem, would be reward enough.