Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of Pacific Jewish Center in Venice was at a loss over how to respond to the latest crisis in Israel, namely, the country’s current war with the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave of Gaza.
Then he found out about the Shmira (“Guarding”) Project, an initiative that pairs Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers with civilians across the globe and encourages the latter to do acts of kindness on behalf of his or her military counterpart. He signed up at shmiraproject.com and received his soldier’s name: Achira ben Nira.
“Then it happened. I started to cry,” the Orthodox rabbi wrote on his popular blog, finkorswim.com. “This was completely unexpected. But seeing that name in black and white made me feel so much closer to the battlefield.”
Fink is not alone among locals in his attempts to grapple with the increasingly unfathomable events taking place in Israel and Gaza. As of press time, more than 600 Palestinians and nearly 30 Israeli soldiers have lost their lives since the launch of Operation Protective Edge earlier this month and the more recent deployment of IDF ground troops into Gaza.
Nobody knows how long this operation will last, or what will come from it. Thousands of missiles have been fired back and forth between the State of Israel and Gaza over the past few weeks, sending Israelis scurrying for shelter in bunkers, destroying Palestinian homes and leading airlines in the U.S. on July 22 to suspend flights to and from Israel.
Meanwhile, the members of the Los Angeles community continue trying, each in their own way, to come to terms with the unfolding events thousands of miles away.
Some, like comedian Danny Lobell, are less interested in following the news and more concerned with helping out in whatever way they can. The Pico-Robertson resident said he has been donating funds to Israeli soldiers through Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. He started after a friend posted the link on Facebook.
“My feelings are always to stand by Israel,” Lobell, 31, said. “And I’ve noticed, also, everybody, including myself, wants to feel like they are a humanitarian. I feel for all cultures and races and religions, and human suffering in any form is devastating, but I feel, in these times, it’s very important for us to stand with our brothers in support, because nobody is going to support us like we can support each other.”
Others, like Rabbi Eli Herscher of the Reform congregation Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, can’t get enough of the news, and it has led to a different feeling: anxiety. He said his inability to keep up with the news pouring out of Israel — no matter how much of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Haaretz he reads — is disconcerting. This is in stark contrast to when Herscher was visiting the Holy Land in June and studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, despite the fact that an air raid siren went off during his stay.
“When I was in Israel and all of this was unfolding, I could turn on the television and watch the Israeli news, and I felt an immediacy and a certain level of trust as well,” he said. “There were certain ways in which I felt it was a little easier for me. I’m not suggesting it is easy to be in Israel, but for me, emotionally, I felt more grounded being in Israel while this was going on.
“I was in Israel during the second Lebanon War — and I felt this again this time — that I was less anxious because I felt I would know every minute what was going on. And last night, I was feeling very anxious and thought no matter how many sources I’m reading, I’m so very far away,” Herscher said on July 21.
Local music producer Erez Safar, 35, whose mother is Israeli, was in the midst of planning a fundraiser for pro-Israel organizations when he spoke to the Journal by phone. He said he’s been frustrated with what he’s seen on social media, including the Twitter hashtag #FreePalestine. Such things only reinforce that there are misconceptions about what is happening in Israel, he said.
“Especially on social media ... I feel like it’s so cool and hipster … to write ‘Free Palestine,’ to be against [Israel] without knowing anything of what is going on,” Safar said. “I kind of just go to sleep super angry and pissed off every night, feeling like it’s insane how people can’t look at this clearly.”
Charlie Carnow, a research analyst at a local labor union, expressed empathy for the Palestinians and
called hopes to see an immediate end to the Israeli offensive — which he termed counterproductive — as well as attacks from Gaza [updated on Thurs., July 24, 11:06 a.m.].
“Gazans must have the chance to have normal lives — access to food, medicine and freedom of movement, or the cycle of missiles, rockets and bloodshed for Israelis and Palestinians will be repeated,” he wrote in an emailed interview with the Journal. “No more wasting lives. Not doing so strengthens Hamas.”
For Rabbi Eli Levitansky, what’s happening right now has implications that go far beyond geopolitics. The spiritual leader of Chabad at Santa Monica College sees something more spiritual — he sees the hand of God.
“If you look at what’s happening in Israel, there are thousands of rockets being sent in, and yet it’s literally an open miracle that you don’t have mass casualties — not even close to that. I’m saying [it is] because God is watching over Israel,” he said.
“[The missile defense system] Iron Dome is obviously helping out, and you need to build your defense system, but the fact is that the Iron Dome is not intercepting even half of the rockets coming into Israel, and yet you don’t have the casualties. So I’m saying it’s an open miracle. An open miracle is that you see it in front of your eyes.”
Organizational dollars, like deep contemplation, have been a part of the community response, too. In the wake of the violence, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has raised more than $700,000 for Federation partner organizations in Israel, according to Federation CEO and President Jay Sanderson.
The money, in part, will provide counseling to trauma victims of Gaza rocket fire. All of the funds will support Israel, with Federation absorbing administrative costs, he said.
“We look at this as a quiet community campaign to help Israel’s most challenged and most vulnerable during a period of high stress and crisis,” Sanderson said. “And it’s what we do. We do two things — we sustain Jewish community and build for the future, but central to everything we do is support for a safe and secure Israel.”
Safar’s fundraiser, “It Is What It Israel” — borrowing a line from a Kosha Dillz rap song — is seeking donations for pro-Israel education and advocacy organization Stand With Us and AMIT, a nonprofit operator of Israeli schools and youth villages. The event takes place at Studio Bancs in Culver City on July 24.
The violence in Israel has caused tempers to flare here in Los Angeles as well. On July 13, when more than 2,000 people turned out at the Wilshire Federal Building to express solidarity with the Jewish state, a fight broke out between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators a couple of hours into the event. A federal officer fired his weapon at a vehicle carrying pro-Palestinian demonstrators driving away from the scene. Authorities arrested four people, and the federal officer was put on paid leave in the aftermath. No one was seriously injured.
The rally was one instance of Los Angeles community members coming together on a large scale as they try to make sense of what is happening in the land they love. Additional rallies have taken place outside the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and at the JEM Community Center in Beverly Hills.
On July 22, Federation held a community briefing conference call with Times of Israel Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel and the Israel Trauma Coalition Director Talia Levanon.
Santa Monica College student Mati Cohen said people like him are paying close attention to what’s happening in Israel, even in unlikely settings. The 21-year-old said the war in Israel should have been the last topic of discussion at a “kick-back” (slang for “party”) he attended on July 20. Nevertheless, the vibe was more solemn than festive.
He and his friends spent the evening discussing Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli, two Lone Soldiers — Diaspora Jews who serve in the IDF — who were killed in a recent operation in Gaza. Steinberg was originally from the San Fernando Valley.
Cohen said he knew Carmeli from when the two were enrolled several years ago at the same yeshiva in Israel. Cohen attended Carmeli’s swearing-in ceremony for the IDF, and when news broke about the latter’s death, Cohen received a flood of phone calls from people who wanted to know what was going on.
“We had no idea if it happened, how it happened,” Cohen said, referring to at least 12 soldiers from the Israeli Golani brigade — Carmeli and Steinberg among them — who died in action on July 20. “I was dumbfounded, I couldn’t figure out what to do, I wasn’t really even processing what happened until today.”
Cohen, who has been organizing rallies and other events on behalf of Israel over the past couple of weeks, including those at JEM and the consulate, said the Lone Soldiers component is critical to understanding why he cares about Israel.
“I think it’s hitting home for the American-Jewish community that it’s not just Israelis fighting, it’s a Jewish issue, now. It’s more relatable,” he said. “It dissolves the divide between Israeli and American Jews, and it strengthens that connection to this conflict.”
David Pine, West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now, said a cease-fire between the two sides is necessary. The longer the armed conflict goes on, the further Israel and Hamas move from a peaceful resolution, he said.
“We know there will not be progress while active shooting is going on,” he said. “I used to pretend I could predict [how long the armed conflict would continue], but I don’t think I want to. I can act like I’m smart and I know things, but when we’re talking about people’s lives and all that, I don’t feel it’s appropriate.”
Pine said Israel has the right to defend itself. He also emphasized that the violence does not benefit either side in the long run.
“I fully understand certain positions and points that want to justify the operation, and I might agree with most, if not all [of those arguments], but I think at some point it’s not just about getting the message out — it’s about what will be accomplished, and I think that gets lost. … [This] is not going to be the end. It will not result in real security for Israel,” he said.
One of Herscher’s worries as things move forward is that the media and world at large will turn against Israel. The rabbi said any sermon he gave on the topic today would be much different than the one he gave a couple of two weeks ago, before a captive audience at Stephen S. Wise.
Back then, he spoke of the murder of three Israelis and the revenge killing of a Palestinian — events that, in part, motivated Israel’s current offensive in Gaza. A sermon today would remind the Jewish community to stay unified in the face of challenges ahead, he said.
“I’d be talking more about the soldiers that are falling in defense of the land and the insidious nature of Hamas terrorism, and I’d be talking much more about the importance of Israel fulfilling this mission and not being deterred prematurely from what they need to do,” Herscher said.
“And I would be talking about that because of the concern that once the rhetoric, the political rhetoric, begins to turn more critical of Israel, that influences a lot of Jews as well, and I would want to talk about maintaining the depth of support, once the criticism has started, of not giving into it.”