The sanctuary of B'nai David-Judea Congregation in the Pico-Robertson area was once a spacious movie theater. Last Wednesday, April 25, it was filled to the nosebleed rows with more than 500 junior-high and high-school students from Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys and Girls Schools, Maimonides Academy, West Valley Hebrew Day School, Hillel Harkham Academy and Emek Hebrew Academy. Looming large onstage were photos of two teenagers with L.A. connections who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists: 14-year-old Yael Botwin, killed in a 1997 terrorist bombing in Jerusalem, and 19-year-old Yitzhak Weinstock, grandson of Rabbi Simon Dolgin, who for three decades served as spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. Weinstock was one of the victims of a 1993 drive-by shooting on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
"We who are fortunate enough to remain alive have an obligation to thank, to wander, to search in our hearts for what meaning there is when young men and women die before their time," Rabbi David Landesman, principal of YULA's boys' school, said from the bima.
What distinguished this particular assembly was its organizer and its agenda. YULA 11th-grader Ayelet Fischer organized the remembrance ceremony, and she was not content to let the Yom HaZikaron observance begin and end with this assembly. The 17-year-old has coordinated a campaign to engage students in a petition-signing and letter-writing campaign directed at Attorney General John Ashcroft and to press government officials to take a more active role in apprehending Palestinian terrorists, such as those who murdered Botwin and Weinstock. While the U.S. government, through its Rewards for Justice Program, routinely offers rewards for information leading to the arrest of terrorists who kill Americans abroad, no such incentive has been offered for Palestinian killers.
What makes matters especially heart-wrenching for Weinstock's family is that Israeli authorities have identified and located the assassins. The hit was ordered by Mohammed Dief, a senior Hamas official and a crony of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli offiicals determined. (Arafat has ignored repeated requests to turn over Dief and other terrorists to Israel.)
Fischer did not know Weinstock or Botwin personally, but, as she told her young audience at last week's assembly, the two victims were teenagers "just like you and me, with families who loved them."
On Sept. 4, 1997, Jess Dolgin, son of Rabbi Dolgin, skipped lunch with friends to catch up on work. That's when he heard a "tremendous explosion" outside his office on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he said.
"It was terrifying," Dolgin recalled. "The sky was dark, the eerie silence, the smell of smoke, the wounded...." Dolgin remembers thinking that "suddenly, for a family somewhere in Israel, that day was no longer just an ordinary day." He later learned that this blast had claimed Botwin.
For Dolgin, the bombing resonated deeply, reminding him of Dec. 1, 1993, when his nephew, Yitzhak Weinstock, and another young man died after being fired upon by Palestinian terrorists while fixing a broken-down car.
It disturbed Fischer that the killers are not listed on the Rewards for Justice Program. "It's not only an injustice, it's an insult to the families," she said.
Fischer is not the first in her family to focus on the killing of Weinstock and Botwin. Her father, Rabbi Dov Fischer, is a longtime supporter of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Fischer's older sisters, Kineret, 19, and Yael, 20, also have set out to rectify the Rewards for Justice Program's omission. Now Fischer, with ZOA's support, is trying to reach her peers. Does the failure of previous attempts discourage her?
"It only makes me more persistent," said Fischer.
Dolgin, who now lives in Los Angeles and heads an Internet company, commended Fischer's determination. "It's very important to make children aware, and to make children take some sort of affirmative action," he said. On behalf of his family, Dolgin added, "Anything showing that Yitzhak's death is not in vain serves a purpose to recognize the tragedy of what goes on in Israel."
Whether or not the terrorists in these two cases are added to the Rewards for Justice Program, Fischer would like to see her Yom HaZikaron campaign continue nationally each year.
"For many kids my age, there's TV and AOL, and that's about it," Fischer said. "It's important to reach teenagers and let them know that you can't see this and not do something about it. The purpose of the program is to show that you can make a difference."
To contact Attorney General John Ashcroft about this issue, write to John Ashcroft, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 20530 or fax (202) 305-9687; or write to "Rewards for Justice" spokesman Andy Laine, P.O. Box 96781, Washington, D.C. 20090-6781 or e-mail dssrewards.net.