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Jewish Journal

Ask What You Can Do

Jews are moving past frustration to find ways to support Israel.

by Charlotte Hildebrand

March 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Day school students rally in support of Israel. Photo by David Karp/JTA

Day school students rally in support of Israel. Photo by David Karp/JTA

Claudia Sobral, mother of three, woke up the other morning after watching a night of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians on the BBC news, and wrote a spontaneous letter to no one in particular, hurling blind questions into cyberspace: "How can we as citizens of the world not take action against the violence that impacts all of us as human beings, impacts all of us who praise and value democratic principles?"

If nothing else, writing the e-mail relieved a bit of the frustration and sorrow she had been feeling over the ever-increasing violence in the Middle East. The next day, 35 e-mails came back, one from a woman in Brazil saying her letter had inspired her to start a peace movement.

No matter where you turn these days -- synagogues, schools, parties or at work -- people are frustrated over the crisis in Israel. The frustration and sorrow cuts across ideological lines: right and left, religious and unaffiliated. All feel the sting.

"I find the issue so frustrating," says Richard Gunther, past president of Americans for Peace Now, an American Zionist organization that works closely with its sister group in Israel, Shalom Achshav. "My instinct is to support Israel, yet who wants to see [Palestinian] women and children killed? On the other hand, I understand where Sharon is coming from. What do we tell him to do? Do nothing? Turn the other check? It's easy to criticize," he laments, in frustration.

For Gunther and a growing number of Jews in the Los Angeles area, the need to push beyond the feelings of frustration and powerlessness is turning into action. That action ranges from travel to charitable donations to political activism to a deeper spiritual commitment. Some are organizing to repair the bias they see in the media against Israel. Others are supporting the victims of terror by lobbying for legislation in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. And others still are demonstrating for peace for Israeli and Palestinian people.

Visit Israel

Travel was once the way American Jews showed their greatest support for Israel. Missions to study and explore were to be the norm. Summer on a kibbutz or ulpan was something we dreamed about; parents spent their lifesavings to have their sons or daughters bar/bat mitzvahed at the Western Wall. But a year and a half of violence has changed all that, with tourism in Israel dropping 50 percent since 2000.

Yet, some still travel to Israel, believing that there's no better time to show support than by being there now. Mina Ganem, from the Israeli Consulate's tourism office, encourages the Jewish community to take the plunge. "[People] don't have to necessarily go to the center of Jerusalem," Ganem says. "Instead, they can winter in Eilat. It would be so meaningful and you can say to your children 10 years from now, 'I was there when Israel needed me.'"

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood never knew he was so loved until he returned to Los Angeles after spending seven days in Israel during one of the most violent weeks there since the Six-Day War. Congregants came up to him, grabbing him and holding him close, thankful to have him back, he said. He was part of 350 attendees at the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Jerusalem, a gathering of Reform rabbinate. "Anyone traveling to Israel today must be aware of the danger," Rosove says. "But no matter if we travel there or not, now is the time for the Jewish community to show its empathy for Israel, whether we agree with what the government is doing or not. People from Shimon Peres down to the shopkeepers on the streets told us how deeply grateful they were for our support."

Send Your Kids to Israel

While youth trips and summer programs to Israel have also slowed to a trickle, there are a few brave still going. Ten students from Shalhevet, a modern Orthodox high school in Los Angeles, are presently in Jerusalem studying on an exchange program and living in different people's houses. "I think by sending students to Israel we are showing our support," says sophomore Benjamin Braun, a staunch supporter of Israel and vice president of Israel Affairs for USY (United Synagogue Youth) at Temple Beth Am. This summer, Braun will travel with 35 other students to Eastern Europe and Israel on a USY pilgrimage.

Donate to Israel

Travel to Israel, while it may boost the morale of the locals, is not a very attractive option to most Americans right now because of the violence. And so instead of going there, many are going to donate.

Charitable contributions from the American Jewish community have always been a great support to Israel. Annually, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles raises over $13 million in support of Israel. This includes money for social services, relief efforts, aliyah, education and advocacy. With the current crisis, established fundraising activities have been stepped-up, as well as new ones created. Beginning March 24, The Federation will be launching "30 Days of Solidarity With Israel." The Solidarity month will begin with a Web cast of the United Jewish Communities' Israel Solidarity Rally in New York with simultaneous gatherings in 50 to 100 communities across North America.

Rally for Israel

Other local events here will try to rally support for Israel. On April 17, the 2002 Israel Independence Day Block party will be held at the UCLA Bayit, sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Life on Campus, the Israeli Consulate and Kagdila Records. On April 21, the American Jewish community will join the American Israeli community for the annual Israel Festival at Woodley Park in Encino. All proceeds will go to support Israel. "Our goal is to activate our community's passion and support for Israel, which it so desperately needs in this dangerous time," Federation President John Fishel says.

"The Los Angeles Jewish community has always been disjointed," says Judy Kaufman, director of public relations at the Israeli Consulate, who serves as the liaison between the Jewish community and the government of Israel. But she believes that the consulate can help to remedy that situation so that Jews can join together to show their support for Israel. She encourages people to attend events and other community gatherings for Israel that are posted on their cultural calendar (www.israelemb.org/la), support organizations such as Shop in Israel (www.shopinisrael.com), a nonprofit organization that offers Passover goods and other items directly from Israel, or visit www.standwithus.com . "It empowers us to learn more about what every Jewish organization is doing to support Israel," Kaufman says. "By showing up and attending those events, it makes a big difference."

 

Support the Victims of Terror

But for some, donating to the state of Israel through a major organization is not enough (see page 12) -- people also want to help the victims of terror. Through a program called Project Embrace, for example, Young Israel of Century City has adopted an orphaned family of nine through Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund -- One Family, an Israeli organization that helps victims of terror (www.walk4israel.com ). On their Web site, one can read up-to-the-minute reports of events in Israel and learn about the most recent Israeli casualties of war, by clicking onto pictures of individual terror victims.)

"My congregants have responded beautifully," says Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel. Similarly, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple encourages his congregation to support Israeli organizations that help victims of terror such as Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund and Magen David Adom, the national emergency medical service that provides 650 ambulances to hospitals all over Israel.

Create a New Program

Wolpe also discusses with his congregants a forum to talk about ways to help Israel. From around the community, innovative ideas are emerging. Last week, at at a meeting of Wexner Heritage Foundation fellows, an idea sprang up to help support victims of terror by opening up a psychological hotline between L.A. professionals and Israeli victims. "We are looking into ways of sharing our humanitarian resources with Israelis in need," says Wexner fellow Rhoda Weisman who is developing the hotline idea.

Get Involved With the Media

Some new ideas aim to strengthen the media's coverage of Israel. At the same meeting of Wexner fellows, Selwyn Gerber, a South African Jew, talked about the power of economics, citing how de-investment sanctions against South Africa helped to end apartheid. He proposed a project that would call for people to buy stocks in media companies, and, en masse, attend the annual shareholder's meeting to influence and rectify the media coverage of Israel, which many feel has been biased against Israel. The nonprofit organization Stand With Us will be sponsoring Gerber's idea. (www.standwithus.com )

A media watchdog group, Jews For Truth Now (www.jewsfortruthnow.com ), founded by David Suissa, Mark Karlan and Newton Becker, has started a new project called Israel Task Force. Every six weeks, various groups gather at Suissa's office to talk about what they can do for Israel. Jews For Truth Now runs advertisements to support Israel in every major newspaper and keeps tabs on media bias.

Become Politically Active

Political activism is not new to Jews. "Jews have been arguing for thousands of years; it's what kept us warm and kept us alive," says Robin Podolsky, a writer and Torah student who was standing with 75 men and women on Wilshire Boulevard demonstrating against violence in the Middle East. "We have to be willing to break our silence, not only as Jews, but as American citizens, if we don't agree with what the [Israeli] government is doing. Jews in the Diaspora have as much right to a vocal opinion as Jews in Israel, because I believe we are all responsible to one another and for one another."

Podolsky had joined a vigil in front of the Israeli Consulate with the American Friends Service Committee and Women in Black, a nonprofit organization founded in Israel 13 years ago by Israeli and Palestinian women to end the occupation in the West Bank. The group demonstrated for peace in the Middle East on March 8, International Women's Day. A small delegation from that group took a message up to the 17th floor of the Israeli Consulate calling for immediate deployment of international monitors in Palestine. No one at the consulate was available to take the letter, but the group (known in Los Angeles as "Women and Men in Black") plans more actions. "We know that the occupation is the source of violence," says Israeli American Yael Korin, member of Women in Black and a research scientist at UCLA. "In Israel, Women in Black is keeping the voice to end the occupation alive." Israel's Women In Black has been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize.

Political activism is the heart of Americans for Peace Now (www.peacenow.org). They sponsor speakers from Israel, have state Action Alerts and do a small amount of lobbying. But their most important function is education. "Teaching the community the realities of what is happening in Israel, without representing just one side is what we do best," Laimer says.

Go to Washington

Political activism and education is at the heart of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a nonprofit organization whose members are drawn from various Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs).

According to Bruce Bialosky, president of RJC's Los Angeles chapter, RJC leadership knows exactly where the Bush administration stands on Israel because they were the only Jewish organization that met with the president in the oval office in December, during a Menorah lighting ceremony. As fellow Republicans, RJC is in a unique position to present Jewish concerns on Israel and other issues to the Republican administration.

Another facet to political activism is lobbying for bills that support Israel and its fight against terrorism. Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has been working proactively to promote legislation to punish Palestinian terrorists. Titled the Koby Mandell Act (known in the Senate as S. 1377 and in the house as H.R. 2098), this bill would establish a new office within the Department of Justice to pursue Palestinian Arab terrorists who have killed or injured Americans and bring them to trial in the United States.

The title of the bill refers to 13-year-old Jacob "Koby" Mandell of Silver Spring, Md. who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Israel in May 2001. Rabbi Dov Fisher, president of ZOA (www.zoa.org ), states that this bill will help fight terrorism and encourages the Jewish community to support these efforts.

Pray for Israel

The Jewish community has shown their stripes in support of Israel, most importantly through prayer. This past Wednesday, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel made a worldwide call to hold a day of fasting and prayer for Israel; the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America joined that call. Yom Kippur Kattan, a day of prayer, fasting, and repentance was held in Los Angeles at Young Israel of Century City and Kehillas Yaakov. A communal mincha and ma'ariv service was held later that day at B'nai David Judea. Kehilet Orach Eliezer and Adat Ari El also held special services for Israel on Wednesday. And Adat Ari El has planned a morning Shabbat service on March 16 as a special commemoration to those who have lost their lives to terrorist attacks in Israel.

"We do what we can do for the victims of terror," says an impassioned Muskin, who encourages his congregation at Young Israel to pray. "Prayer is to feel for those victims, and feel connected to what is happening in Israel."

Wolpe has been talking to his congregation recently about the importance of not despairing. "Hopelessness contradicts Jewish faith and contradicts history. This is a very difficult and painful time, but despair is a sin."

He acknowledges that frustration, anger and sorrow are all healthy responses to what is happening in Israel, but it's too easy to slid into despair, and un-Jewish to do so. "My essential feeling is that everybody who is certain they have the solution is a little naive. No one knows what will pull us out of this. We all have our ideas, but I'm more preoccupied these days with trying to comfort those that are grieving, and support those that are fighting; less into condemning those I differ from. There have been enough diatribes in the Jewish community and it doesn't help."

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