Dr. Robert Khorhramian had never been to Israel before. Since he moved to Los Angeles from Iran in the late 1970s, the 46-year-old foot and ankle surgeon had planned many times to visit, yet something came up every time. But last month at Sinai Temple, he heard about the 48-hour medical and support mission, and he knew nothing would stop him this time: not a full surgery schedule, not a concerned wife, nothing.
"For me, this trip is an absolute miracle," Khorhramian told The Journal from the Toronto stopover on the way to Tel Aviv. As a child he had suffered anti-Semitism, getting pinched, hit and kicked in prep school for being Jewish, and it made him dream about Israel. Now, he feels like he would do "anything" for the country he feels is home, even though he's never been there. "As a Jew, I have to go," he said.
More than 100 people felt the same way. The group, made up of a majority of Sinai Temple members, included about 30 doctors and others from the L.A. community. For the two-day mission to Israel, they brought with them over $3.5 million in contributions from temple members, matched by Magbit, a Persian Jewish foundation, to donate to various medical centers, municipalities and organizations (see box for list), as well as another $250,000 worth of medical equipment donated by Cedars-Sinai Medical Group and Encino/Tarzana Regional Medical Center. They also brought with them toys for children in hospitals, offers for medical assistance and letters from schoolchildren ("I wish that Israil [sic] will never have a wore [sic] again," one boy wrote in a letter to place in the Western Wall). But most importantly, they brought themselves.
"We could have just donated another $200,000 to Israel," said Aaron Leibovic, a member of the Sinai Temple board of directors, of the price of everyone's plane fare. "It's so much more important to come here and deliver it in person," he explained. "I'm doing it as much for myself as I am for Israel."
Sinai Temple is not the first group to send a mission to Israel during the current crisis. The Southern California Board of Rabbis took 13 local rabbis there in April. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is currently in Israel with a group from Sephardic Temple Tiffeth Israel, presenting money raised for Israel. Rabbi Elazar Muskin and members of Young Israel of Century City have a July trip planned.
But Sinai's is the largest such mission, and arrived carrying the largest amount of donations.
Among those on the Sinai mission: former Sinai Temple President Jimmy Delshad, Federation President John Fishel, Magbit founder Parviz Nazarian and David Suissa.
Dr. Pejman Salimpour, immediate past clinical chief of pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and founder of Doctors Opposed to Child Sacrifice, organized the 30 physicians on the mission.
"We're not coming to give the money," Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai said, explaining that the purpose of the trip is to visit the victims of terror.
Over the next two and a half days, everywhere the group of obviously American tourists went -- from the Sephardic Educational Center and the Western Wall to a gift shop at Hadassah Hospital -- it impressed onlookers, more used to empty cafes and ambulances than Jewish supporters from abroad.
"Their visit is more important than their money," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, speaking privately before a morning memorial at Shevach Moffet High School in Tel Aviv. Just a year before, on June 1, 2001, the school lost seven students -- including two sisters -- at the Dolphinarium bombing attack in Tel Aviv, which killed 23.
"Our lives have changed in the last year, visiting cemeteries, lighting candles, looking at pictures, putting flowers on memorials," said Yagir Kultan, head of the student body. "A year has passed, but the pain does not abate. Forever you will live in our hearts," he told the students, politicians and visitors, among them the Los Angeles Sinai group and a group from Shevach's sister school, Milken High School in Los Angeles, which has an exchange program with Shevach. (Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School announced her school's contribution of $325,000 to build a new library; Milken Community High students personally collected $25,000 to stock the bookshelves with titles in Hebrew, Russian and English in memory of the students who were killed.)
On this uncharacteristically balmy Tel Aviv morning, from a black stage with a backdrop of inked drawings of the seven students, as parents placed wreaths on their childrens' memorial, and the student choir sang "When you go away, you take a part with you," Israelis, Russians, French and Americans remembered the dead.
"I hope I can lend some of my feelings to them," said Howard Wallach, a psychiatrist from Cedars-Sinai who attends Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles. "Certainly today, I felt like family, and I guess they are."
The group presented Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai with a gift for a mobile trauma unit (with contributions by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Magbit), as well as money to the school. "We stand here both humbly and with a great deal of pride, that we can be together in both peace and war," said Abner Goldstine, the president of Sinai Temple. "We hope to see you again in peace," he said.
"Thank you for coming, because many Jews are afraid to come," Huldai told the group. "It's very difficult times, and we are glad to see you here," he said.
Most were moved to tears at seeing the private show of grief, even as the students, dressed in the traditional mourning clothing of black and white, once again resumed joking in the hallways, carrying books, going to class, after the ceremony.
"I would hug you all, it's so unfair, I commend your strength," said Daniel Ben Zvi to the student body.
"I think I'm leaving with so much more than I'm coming with."
Eli Benharon, who grew up in Petach Tikvah but has lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, said that he never thought he would come to Israel with a group of American tourists, but he felt that Israel needs the business and he was glad to join this kind of mission.
"I survived two wars growing up, and I have never in my life heard such sadness," he said. "People don't yell out in a loud voice, but I hear the pain in their hearts."
There's still a knife stuck in the ceiling of the Park Hotel in Netanya, where three months ago, on Passover eve in the middle of the March 27 seder, a suicide bomber detonated himself, killing 29. The lobby has been renovated already, even though only two guests are staying at the hotel, but evidence of the massacre is evident in the empty dining room. White wires, green hoses and copper fixtures dangle like weeds from the cracked, yellowed ceiling, and the mirrored paneling has only partially fallen off the five concrete pillars surrounding a circle where diners once ate, not completing their Passover meal.
"All this center circle was filled with water and the wounded were swollen because of the water, with and all around the bodies," said an EMT specialist who was there the night of the bombing.
"Our being here today enlarges the circle of mourning," Wolpe said before reading the "Kaddish" mourning prayer and joining the group in lighting candles around the circle.
"It's chilling, that's what makes it much more real," said Janeen Rae Heller, a singer-songwriter from Burbank who heard about the trip at Friday Night Live services at Sinai. "It's really potent. I've lived my whole life in safety, total freedom ... this just inspires me to feel the humanity, that part of us is the same, not the other."
Outside, overlooking the stunning cerulean Netanya coastline, Heller whipped out her guitar and sang Hebrew songs on the grass.
"It's so scary, this could happen to any of us, and there's no tourism and people feel frightened -- but I don't feel frightened," said Sandy Tilsen from Temple Ahavat Shalom. This is Tilsen's first visit to Israel, but she would like to come back for a longer trip. "I felt like I'm a part of this; you've connected with your past," she said.
Anna Vashbein, blue-eyed with a peaches-and-cream complexion, smiles from her wheelchair as some from the American group walk into her room at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. Vashbein, 25, was waitressing at the Park Hotel on seder night. She got hit in the head, was burned, and her spinal cord was injured.
"We want you to know that we think about you and we don't forget you, and we finished the seder for you in America," Leibovic told Vashbein in stilted Hebrew on behalf of the visitors.
"I want to say thank you to everyone, and I'm very happy people are thinking of us," she said, explaining how her life has changed since the injury, how her husband must care for their 18-month-old boy, Jonathan.
"Is there anything we can do for you?" Wolpe asked her.
"Only to put me on my feet," she said. Vashbein is paralyzed from the waist down, and has been told there is no hope for recovery.
Throughout the day, Angelenos met with victims of terror in hospitals throughout Tel Aviv, including meeting a couple in Rishon Lezion who lost both their daughter and mother just 10 days prior. The group also visited Beit Halochem, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Disabled Veterans organization, where the blind played soccer, amputees swam and those who were wheelchair-bound flamenco danced. "I know from here, everyone in the world should take an example from them, from their will to survive," said Yael Rubin. "The Jewish community should learn from the community in Israel." Rubin brought with her private donations from families who could not join the trip, and letters of support from students at Kadima Hebrew Academy.
By Wednesday morning, the trip was half over, and although it had only gone on for a little more than a day, for most it felt like longer because of all they had seen. Yet there was more: that morning a bomber drove by a bus at Megiddo junction, killing 17. At breakfast, before an IDF briefing, members of the group gathered around a computer surfing the Internet for more information on the bombing.
"You wake up in the morning, you hear about the disaster and you go on with life," said David Aftergood, a physician who came on the trip with his 21-year-old son, Aaron. "In a way, your skin becomes thicker. We were on our bus today, and it's conceivable that some car can come up to it [and blow it up like the Megiddo bombing] but you can't think too much, or no one will function."
Edna Sheqalim came to Israel five years ago from Iran. The 34-year-old mother of three was working in a shoe store when an Arab woman walked in and asked for a pair of shoes. As Sheqalim bent down to find the woman's size, the Arab woman took out a bottle and poured acid all over Sheqalim. Today, in tan bandages covering her face and neck like a burka over her two burned-off ears, the Persian Jewish woman spoke in Farsi to the L.A. Jews visiting Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem.
Was she sorry she moved to Israel? Dr. Morgan Hakimi asked her. Hakimi is a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and crisis management.
"I always wanted to come here because Israel is my home. My husband and I always wanted to raise children here," Sheqalim said. "Even though this happened, this still is our home."
After visiting other hospitals in Jerusalem, meeting with victims, and donating gifts and letters to children and expectant mothers, the group gathered together for a farewell dinner in Jerusalem.
"We have seen some inspirational things," Wolpe said, "but ultimately Jerusalem is not about pain, it's about blessing and light." The rabbi brought up the story of the spies, how they spoke badly of the land of Israel and were punished, but the group should speak well of Israel. "Despite the pain, we saw beautiful, joyous and loving place," Wolpe said. "The reward of going to Jerusalem is seeing Jerusalem."
Later, before boarding the plane, he told The Journal, "This trip will be a success if it will inspire others to do the same. That will be the judge of this trip."
Sinai Temple/Magbit Foundation
Distribution of Donations - Israel Crisis Response Fund
Total donations to date: $3.25 million
Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund/ One Family
Provides assistance to families according to committee recommendations.
Serves both the military and civilians who suffer injuries similar to those in combat.
Donations: $1,000,000 (anonymous donor); $500,000
Israel Defense Forces Victims Fund
For military families who have been victims of terror, based on information provided by the army chief of staff.
Promotes emotional recovery for survivors of terrorist acts and their families through social workers and counselors.
Selah Foundation - The Israel Crisis Management Center
Israel's only countrywide volunteer network of assistance and support for new immigrants hit by tragedy.
Herzog Trauma Center Walk-In Unit
Provides trauma services and therapy both locally and on a national basis.
Aid to individual cities hit hardest by terror
Haifa Center for Children: $25,000
Rambam Hospital: $75,000
Beer Sheva Foundation: $100,000
Netanya Foundation: $100,000
Tel Aviv Corp. Mobile Trauma Unit:
Shevach Moffet School: $50,000
Zerifin (adjacent to Rishon L'Tzyon)
Assaf Harofeh Medical Center:
The New Jerusalem Foundation:
Additional donation includes
Magen David Adom: $31,000