Working as a Catholic social worker in the underground network Zegota during World War II, Irena Sendler headed an operation to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Over 16 months, her volunteers spirited youngsters out in sacks, suitcases or body bags, through sewers, basements and subterranean passageways. Because Sendler eventually hoped to reunite the children with their parents, she scribbled their names and locations on scraps of paper and buried them in jars in a garden. She did not reveal the names even when she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo, whose beatings broke her legs and feet, and left her permanently disabled.
In all, she helped rescue approximately 2,500 Jews -- more than twice the number saved by Oskar Schindler -- although her equally heroic deeds remained obscure for decades after the war. Sendler remained a historical footnote, in fact, until three teenagers a continent away discovered her story and turned it into a play in 1999.
Imagine a cellphone ringing and ringing. Put it in a backpack. Put the backpack next to the wreckage of a bus mangled by a bomb. A rescue worker reaches into the backpack to turn the cellphone off because he cannot bear to hear the voice on the other end of the line.
With that image, from an account given in Israeli papers, I asked my congregants on the first day of Passover to help our sisters and brothers in Israel. We cannot win Israel's battles nor restore to life those who have died. But we can buy wheelchairs for the injured. We can pay for physical and emotional therapy for those whose lives are scarred by terror. We can provide social services for the shattered lives of the 400 children orphaned by the recent attacks.
With the escalation of violence in the Middle East, many within Los Angeles' Jewish community are turning to the local chapters of organizations that raise money or garner support for Israel to gather information, lend their support or as a way of voicing their opinions.
Long before last August, when he had his bar mitzvah at Santa Monica's Beth Shir Shalom, 13-year-old Alex Miller has practiced what he has been preached: charity and tikkun olam.
For him, it all began in 1996, when Miller's third grade class participated in Super Sunday.
"I really enjoyed it," he recalls. "Whenever a phone opened up, me and my friend would run for it."
About two weeks ago, I attended a three-day conference in Jerusalem along with more than 3,400 Americans and Canadians and 2,000 Israelis. We North Americans had all made the journey despite State Department warnings that travel in the area was unsafe, in part because of an expected confrontation with Iraq. But when we looked to see how Jerusalemites were reacting to our presence, we discovered that, in general, the Israeli world outside our convention center all but ignored us.