Nevertheless, the name of the city of Sderot (pronounced sde-ROTE), located near the border of Gaza, was on everyone's tongue at the sold-out Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills on Tuesday evening, Feb. 26.
Politicians, Hollywood stars, Israeli celebrities, Jewish community leaders, high school students and local dignitaries all were talking about this small, rocket-riddled town in Israel's western Negev region, whose plight has largely been ignored by the international media for the past seven years.
"Live For Sderot," a benefit concert organized by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC), aimed to raise awareness of one of Israel's most painful, ongoing issues, along with funds for children's educational programs.
"That night, Sderot stood alone in the spotlight," said Gilad Millo, Israeli Consul for Media and Public Affairs and one of the main architects behind the "Live For Sderot" gala. "For the first time, an Israeli humanitarian issue was brought to light without balancing it with Gaza. Until now, Sderot has been an illegitimate cause. We wanted to change that."
More than $300,000 has been raised so far to fund four educational projects in Sderot that will bring the latest technology to classrooms, provide assistance through an online network that will allow students forced to stay home to continue their learning, improve English-language studies and help bring test scores up to national standards.
Haim Saban and the Jewish Federation were two of the largest donors, it was announced at the concert. They each donated $100,000.
The high-profile event, which also marked the beginning of Israel's 60th Anniversary celebration in Los Angeles, did much to bring the suffering of Sderot residents to the forefront of many people's consciousness -- in Los Angeles, in the United States and even in Israel. From non-Jewish public school students on up to one of Israel's brightest stars, the word Ã«Sderot' penetrated hearts and infiltrated minds.
As part of the "Live For Sderot" public awareness campaign, the ILC funded a weeklong diplomacy trip for ten 15-year-olds from Sderot. The shell-shocked but resilient young ambassadors visited several high schools and universities in Los Angeles, including Kadima Hebrew Academy, Taft High School, Milken Community High School and USC, sharing terrifying as well as universal teen experiences from their daily lives and answering questions about their imperiled town.
"We hear Qassam rockets every morning and night," said Yarin Peretz, 15, to a large gathering at USC Hillel on Monday, Feb. 25. "If we don't get hurt, someone we know will get hurt. We have no solution to the security problem."
Moved by their words and the connection they felt to their peers from the other side of the world, 200 students from Milken attended the "Live For Sderot" concert and made their support known to everyone in the theater by howling enthusiastically from their seats in the balcony.
Milken student Joey Freeman spoke at the concert, expressing his solidarity with Sderot on behalf of his enthused classmates. Freeman took the opportunity to show off his Hebrew skills in front of his Hebrew teacher, also in attendance, one of many on stage that night pledging support for the long-ignored crisis.
Twenty-four speakers and musicians were part of the lengthy, but impressive, salute to Sderot and Israel's 60th Independence.
Among the highlights was Noa Tishby, an Israeli model, actress and producer -- she is the executive producer of HBO's "In Treatment" -- who stepped in at the last minute to replace Paula Abdul as the master of ceremonies. Abdul rushed to the Wilshire Theater after an "American Idol" taping and was all set to host, but backed out an hour before show time because she was feeling sick, according to the Israeli Consulate.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple led the audience in the "Shehecheyanu," a prayer thanking God for bringing us this far, and reminded everyone that though we are celebrating 60 years of a Jewish homeland, we should not forget to commemorate 3,000 years of a unified existence.
Other sentiments of solidarity with Israel, and specifically Sderot, were expressed by Hollywood, as well as Holy Land, celebrities: actress Valerie Harper, who played Golda Meir in "Golda's Balcony"; Jon Voight, an Academy Award-winning actor who is a frequent contributor to Jewish causes and events such as the Chabad Telethon; Aki Avni, one of Israel's biggest stars; Jonathan Lipnicki, who played the charming kid in "Jerry McGuire"; and stage actor Mike Burstyn, a legend in Israeli theater who received much acclaim for his recent one-man performance in the U.S. as Meyer Lansky in "Lansky."
With his strong ties to the Jewish community of Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looked right at home schmoozing with attendees under the banner of Israeli flags in the theater's lobby. Maria Conchita Alonso introduced him as "a leader who has brought together the many communities of our city ï¿½- who has always shown his love and support for Israel and for Sderot," and the mayor certainly radiated warmth toward the crowd at "Live For Sderot."
Millo said that Mayor Villaraigosa was one presenter he did not have to brief about Sderot. The mayor has been closely connected to Sderot for two years, ever since he had a phone conversation with the mayor of the Israeli town that was repeatedly interrupted by "red color" alerts.
The politicians who received the most enthused reactions from the crowd were not actually present in the theater. Presidential candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each were represented by recorded messages aired on a large screen onstage.
Clinton came first and received only tepid applause from the audience. "When I think of what it must be like to attempt to raise children, go about your normal lives, while under daily rocket attacks from terrorists in Gaza, I am overwhelmed by your courage and sacrifice," she said.
Boos greeted the screening of Obama's message, which is the only one of the three currently available on YouTube. Obama was the only candidate to mention the safety of both Israeli and Palestinian children. "Tonight, we stand in solidarity with the people of Sderot. We let them know that they are not only in our thoughts and prayers, but that we are going to actively work with them to bring an end to these rocket attacks, to ensure that we are building a lasting peace that will allow Israeli and Palestinian children to live side by side in peace and security."
McCain's appearance on screen brought roars of approval from the crowd. "The world cannot remain passive in the face of the terrorist rocket assault on Sderot. It is an outrage that the violence exacted on innocent men, women and children has not received global condemnation. Everyone deserves to live in peace," he said, echoing the "Live For Sderot" slogan.
"These three candidates addressed the issue of Sderot for probably the first time in their campaigns," said the consulate's Millo. "That is enormously significant. There is no one else right now that has the country's attention more than these three figures. Everyone is listening to what they have to say and the fact that they lent their voices to this cause is huge."
Other political dignitaries participating in "Live For Sderot" included Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan, making one of his first major public appearances in Los Angeles, delivering an impassioned speech thanking everyone in attendance for coming out to support Sderot and launching the 60th celebration of Israel's independence. Israel Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tzipi Livni, expressed her commitment to improve the situation in Sderot in a taped message from Israel. Council member Jack Weiss and Beverly Hills Jimmy Delshad were in the audience.
Ninette Tayeb, introduced by Noa Tishby as "the beautiful face of Israel" and "Israel's sweetheart and superstar," was not only the headliner for "Live For Sderot" but also has become a public spokesperson for the cause in Israel. The actress and singer ,who was the winner in 2003 of Israel's first American Idol-like singing competition, appeared on Israeli television and was interviewed in several of Israel's major news outlets prior to her performance in Los Angeles -- her first in the United States.
Tayeb, 24, had no previous connection to Sderot but has grown passionate about its circumstances. On the red carpet at the Wilshire Theatre before the show, she repeatedly expressed hope that the campaign would succeed in getting the word out.
Her performance of original and cover songs, performed in both Hebrew and English, received mixed reactions from the audience, many of whom left as the singer was performing her 45-minute set.
Some Israelis at the event pointed out that they came to hear Tayeb, an Israeli singer, sing popular songs in Hebrew. They even called out requests for "Yam Shel Dmaot" (Sea of Tears), the song that rocketed her to stardom in her winning performance on "Kochav Nolad." But the singer politely refused, saying, "No, no, I'm past that. No more tears."
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel speculated that the mostly American audience (Millo estimated that 70 percent of the attendees were American) was not familiar with Tayeb or her music and did not come to the event to see her perform.
"They loved the evening, the purpose behind it," said Rabbi Bouskila, whose 11-year-old daughter Shira sang a skin-tingling rendition of "Ha-Tikvah" at the concert. "They came to support Sderot and maybe didn't care to stay that late for the entire concert."
Because of tight security at the theater, it took longer than expected to get the 1,900 ticket holders through the metal detectors and purse inspections. As a result, the program began nearly an hour late.
Nevertheless, the quality of Tayeb's singing overshadowed her glaring lack of confidence on the stage, according to those who know her work, including some Israeli fans at the concert and members of the Israeli media covering the event.
Veteran Israeli reporter Aaron Barnea seemed to think the only success of the night was Tayeb. His critical television segment for Israel's Channel Two complained about the event's lack of organization and pointed out the absence of A-list celebrities. The title of his clip was, "Consulate Organizes Show for Children of Sderot -- Only Rambo Shows Up," referring to the presence of Sylvester Stallone.
Indeed, big names like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were not present, leaving the paparazzi to snap photos of Jolie's father, Jon Voight, and other familiar though not quite as flashy faces, like Mayim Bialik of "Blossom" fame, Elijah Kelley from "Hairspray" and Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari who also performed that night. Stallone, who has visited Israel twice -- once to film "Rambo" and another time for the opening of Planet Hollywood in Tel Aviv -- made a brief appearance, though he did not stay for the show.
Despite some criticism, the "Live For Sderot" concert accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve.
"This concert had nothing but a positive affect on Sderot," said Rabbi Bouskila, who wrote a special prayer for Sderot that has been circulated to several synagogues in the city and will be recited throughout L.A. in the coming weeks. "It really heightened awareness on the national stage. Now the challenge is keeping the campaign alive and maintaining this level of support. But that's up to us -- the Jewish community."
To learn more about and contribute to the Israeli Leadership Fund for Sderot, visit http://www.live4sderot.org
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