Mourning precedes festivities at Israel Education Day

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It wasn't the way it was planned. No one wanted to start the day that way. But there was no choice.

Sunday's Israel Education Day at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School began with a memorial service honoring the 62 people killed in Israel during the past weeks by terrorist bombings.

Kobi Sharon, an Israeli shaliach (emissary) at the East Bay's Israel Center, told how hard it was for him to be away from home. His son calls from Israel twice a day to reassure Sharon he's all right.

Cantor Brian Reich of Berkeley's Congregation Beth El led the group in prayer and Kaddish. Poems were read. "Oseh Shalom" was sung.

Nimrod Barkan, consul general of Israel for the S.F.-based Pacific Northwest region, told of a bombing that morning in south Lebanon. Gasps from the audience indicated he was first to bring the news. These are desperate acts, he said. Hamas knows the peace process will make it irrelevant. Don't be swayed by emotion. Peace, he counseled, is the only hope.

The memorial service concluded, but concerns about the bombings continued in discussions and lectures throughout the all-day event.

Now in its 14th year, Israel Education Day focused this year on Jerusalem, with workshops on topics from music and poetry to politics and history. The event, funded by a grant from the Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, was sponsored by a variety of East Bay groups and synagogues.

Riva Gambert, associate director of the East Bay-based Jewish Community Relations Council, estimated that of the 450 people attending this year, 90 percent had come before. Well over half were seniors.

Many came to learn more about Israel and found greater meaning this year because of the bombings. Others came to share the sorrow of the recent deaths, including the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Sarona Jacobs, an Israeli native, found solace mourning with other Jews. "It feels like one people," she said.

There were a few complaints about acoustics, but generally people were pleased with the content of the program and found comfort in the memorial service.

Following the service, the event opened with a sound-and-light show about Jerusalem. Created by Elli Booch, a shaliach from Young Judea, the show featured slides, movies, poetry and music of Jerusalem. The city's history was traced from the arrival of the Israelites 3,000 years ago to the present. Particularly moving were footage of the reclaiming of the Old City in 1967 and the singing of "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav."

The performance concluded as students walked down the aisles carrying Israeli flags, and blue and white balloons were released.

The crowd then broke up into the morning workshops.

Ken Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, talked about Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple, when Jews represented between 10 percent and 18 percent of the Roman Empire. Three times a year — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — Jewish pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem, double or tripling the city's population. Focusing on Pesach, Cohen painted a picture of a tent city in what is now the new part of Jerusalem, bonfires glowing as the paschal lambs were cooking, and commerce bustling.

Singer and songwriter Fran Avni led a workshop on the music of Jerusalem.

Professor Noel Kaplowitz of Berkeley's Institute for International Studies and U.C. Davis' Institute for Government Affairs, discussed internal conflicts in Israel. One such conflict, between secular Zionists and religious Jews, revolves around the question of whether Jews are a nationality or a religion. Although his talk was well-received at least one couple was disappointed he didn't focus more on the topic indicated in the program, "Israel after Rabin." In fact, he didn't touch on the topic until the question-and-answer period, when he condensed one-third of his intended lecture into 15 minutes.

Particularly provocative was Natzhia Shaked's discussion of the trial of Jesus. Using the Christian Bible, Talmud and Roman law, Shaked analyzed jurisdictional and other legal aspects of the trial. Her conclusion: It is doubtful that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.

She pointed out that one reason the Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus was that when Rome became the center of the Christian world after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, it would have been highly impolitic for Christians to have blamed the Romans. The Jews became a convenient scapegoat.

Sandrine Hahn, a Bay Area artist and art therapist, led a hamsa workshop. The hamsa (hand) is a symbol found in many religions to ward off evil. As participants made paper hamsas, Hahn had them think about what in their lives needed to be warded off. Hahn wears a peace hamsa bearing symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to remind her to be tolerant.

The day closed with a speech by retired Gen. Nehemia Degan, a 32-year veteran of the Israeli military, now executive director of overseas programs for United Jewish Appeal. Replacing Colette Avital, Israel's consul general in New York, who was called back to Israel at the 11th hour, Degan flew in from Israel Sunday morning and was on his way back by dinnertime.

The biggest issues facing Israel today, he said, are the peace process, as well as immigration and absorption.

Focusing on peace negotiations, Degan discussed the disposition of disputed land, terrorist bombings and the Palestine National Covenant to destroy Israel.

His conclusion was optimistic, indicating the Labor and Likud parties are now in accord on the concessions needed.

Achieving peace "is very, very difficult," he said. "But is there any other choice?"