Education Day stresses peace, Jewish identity

Outlining the Mideast peace process, Elliot Brandt of AIPAC told a Contra Costa audience it is important to stay on top of foreign affairs and build relationships with policymakers.

"It's crucial that people who care about Israel are up to date," said Brandt, who is Pacific Northwest regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "What's going on with the peace process, who are the elected officials, are they knowledgeable, have we met with them and thanked them for their involvement?"

Brandt was one of several speakers at Education Day, held recently at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. More than 200 people filled the synagogue for the annual community day of Jewish learning, organized by the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and sponsored by local Jewish organizations.

The afternoon program, "Who We Are: American Jews at the Millennium," featured Brandt and two other panelists discussing the political, domestic and spiritual changes on the horizon. The speakers encouraged the audience to reach out, take action and commit to positive change for the next century.

Brandt reminded the audience "that if the peace process lasts you'll know you had a hand in it."

Rabbi Zari Weiss, the community rabbi of the Greater East Bay, discussed the spiritual future of Judaism and the role one can play to ensure that Judaism thrives.

"We need engaged, active and committed Jews, regardless of their denomination," she said, "crossing over the denominational divide" so that individuals as well as movements can learn from one another and grow. By reaching out to people who are new or returning to Jewish life, "we can create gateways for those who are not connected."

Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said the American Jewish community was "in pretty good shape" but illuminated some challenges on the domestic agenda.

He touched on the passing of the survivor generation, the increasing competition from other groups in the political realm and the "shifting perception of seeing ourselves as a minority group or as part of the American majority."

He said the biggest crisis may be "our state of crisislessness," and the need to galvanize communities despite the apparent absence of urgency.

During the question-and-answer period, the three panelists gave their views on Israel's relevance to American Jewish life. Kahn talked about "the privilege of living in the time that has seen the rebirth of the Jewish state" and reiterated the need to stay alert and proactive.

"People get angry with Israel and walk away. It's important for people who are angry over specific policies to engage their anger and stay there and commit to what Israel means to us," he said.

Brandt reminded the audience that "we have not yet seen what Israel could do in a time of peace," and to effect change, education and activism are needed. "In every case of anger, there's an opportunity to become more involved locally and internationally. What's really hard to stomach is apathy and lack of concern."

Weiss stressed the importance of "cementing a relationship with Israel" and lauded efforts to send young people to the country for free, "so that they can see for themselves the way we are bound to the people of Israel."

The message of activism and involvement struck a chord for many of the day's participants. Marilee Tiras of Walnut Creek, attending the event for the first time, left with a new enthusiasm and resolve.

"This definitely brought home things that I can do as a Jew who tends not to get too involved and what I can do to support Israel." she said.

Linda Waldroup of Walnut Creek admitted she had not been very involved in issues concerning Israel. However, "after this afternoon I feel the importance of being clear on issues so I can contact my legislators to take a certain position."

Linda Friedman of Orinda also expressed a desire to become more active and involved. "I've been remiss in this area so I'll try to be a better constituent and do my part as an American citizen."