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Community Briefs: Southern California News

July 13, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Rocket Attacks in Sderot Interrupt Efforts by Villaraigosa to Speak With City's Mayor

Early on the morning of July 6, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of Israel, was interrupted twice in attempts to place a call to Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot, which Palestinian terrorists have been attacking almost daily with Qassam rockets in recent weeks. Moyal had to interrupt both calls because of rocket attacks.

Villaraigosa wanted to reach out to the people of the Jewish state, and he chose Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has a population of 20,000, after conferring with local Jewish leaders. On hand for the preplanned call were City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.

The conversation barely got beyond the introductions.

Just as Villaraigosa began to move to substantive matters, Moyal interrupted, saying over the speaker phone: "I'm sorry. We're going to have to have this conversation some other time. We've just been attacked by seven Qassam rockets." Five to 10 minutes later, Danoch called Moyal a second time and reached him on his cellphone. Just as Danoch was about to push the speaker phone button, Moyal again cut the conversation short because of another barrage of rockets.

"This experience shook all of us to our core," Villaraigosa said in a statement. "I have tremendous respect for Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot, who live their lives in the shadow of terror. It makes you grateful for the peace and safety that we have here in Los Angeles."

The attempt by the mayor of America's second-largest city to reach out to the people of a nation he so admires became a lesson in the explosiveness and unpredictability of the Middle East.

Weiss said that the immediacy of the circumstances behind the termination of Villaraigosa's call with Sderot's mayor "really brought home the suddenness of terrorism." Weiss represents Los Angeles' Fifth Council District, which includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The Qassam attacks also underscore the escalation of Palestinian attacks on Sderot and elsewhere in the region, and the dangers these attacks represent to Israeli citizens, Fishel said.

"Most folks here in Los Angeles don't necessarily understand Israel's geography and how close Sderot is to [Gaza] and the attacks' impact on the normalcy of the lives of men, women and children," Fishel said.

Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year. The targets have recently included schools during school hours, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, causing Sderot's student population to drop by more than 15 percent over the past year.

In response to news of the call, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter, said that Villaraigosa has every right to call city officials around the world to express his solidarity with them, especially when they face the consequences of war and natural disasters. But given that the mayor has called Israeli civic leaders, he has an obligation to call Palestinians, Ayloush said.

"When it comes to the Middle East, it is important to remember that there are two sides who are suffering due to this conflict," Ayloush said. "But there is one side that's suffering even more -- that is the Palestinians, because of the occupation."

To date, Villaraigosa has not yet called any Palestinian officials but hasn't ruled out doing so in the future, spokesman Ben Golombek said. L.A.'s mayor has twice visited Israel and hopes to make another trip there again soon.

-- Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Deadline Nears for Filing Claims for Hungarian Holocaust Reparations

Time is running out for Hungarian Holocaust victims and surviving relatives to collect restitution from the Hungarian government.

Claims accompanied by appropriate documentation must be postmarked and mailed to Budapest by July 31 to qualify. The Hungarian government is offering $1,800 to Hungarian Jews who survived concentration camps and Hungarian Jews forced into slave labor during World War II and $1,800 for each sibling or parent who perished in a death camp because of the collusion Hungarian authorities.

Although the sums seem small, that money could go a long way. An estimated 25 percent of the roughly 120,000 Holocaust survivors currently residing in the United States live below the poverty line. That compares to just 5 percent of American Jews older than 55, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. "This will definitely make it easier for many of them to make ends meet," said Mark Rothman, Holocaust services advocate at Bet Tzedek, a legal aid organization that offers free services to Holocaust survivors and the poor, among others. "For the survivors, this is official recognition of their suffering."

Bet Tzedek recently held six workshops on Hungarian restitution that 200 mostly elderly Jews attended. The group plans to hold additional workshops throughout July, with dates to be determined.

For more information, call Bet Tzedek's information line at (323) 549-5883.

-- MB

Loan Association Launches Drive to Raise Interest-Free Funds for College Tuition

With student loan rates rising, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) has just undertaken a campaign to raise an additional $250,000 for interest-free loans for undergraduate and graduate students.

Typically, the group makes about 500 student loans annually, totaling $1.5 million. However, JFLA executives believe that increased borrowing costs will stoke demand.

"We want to be ready to meet the expected surge in need," JFLA Executive Director Mark Meltzer said. "Providing interest-free student loans to the community is part of the central core of our mission."

As of July 1, the interest rates on federally subsidized student loans jumped from 5.3 percent to at least 6.8 percent. The rates on PLUS loans taken out by parents increased from 6.1 percent to 8.5 percent. The hikes come at a time when tuition costs for higher education have outpaced the inflation rate for several years.

The nonprofit JFLA offers 29 interest-free loan programs, including money for families with special-needs children, Jewish families adopting a child and for entrepreneurs starting or expanding a small business. The association, which is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, currently has more than $6.5 million in outstanding loans.

Individuals interested in donating to or borrowing from JFLA should call (323) 761-8830 or visit www.jfla.org.

- MB

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