Alameda mayor finds first taste of Israel inspiring

Alameda mayor Ralph Appezzato is Catholic but he wears the Lion of Judah pinned on his lapel.

He also has a mezuzah, ("slanted correctly — my Jewish friends told me"), hanging upon his front door.

Ever since his trip to Jerusalem as part of the 21st annual Conference of Mayors, Appezzato has been quite Jewishly inspired and impressed by the strength and courage displayed by the Israeli people.

"They live in a state of, somewhat, insecurity yet go about their lives as if the insecurity doesn't exist," said Appezzato, a first-time visitor to Israel. "It showed me that no matter how difficult conditions are they can be overcome and progress can continue."

Appezzato was one of 46 mayors from 25 countries to attend the conference, sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, March 25 through April 1. Only eight mayors were selected from the United States, including Mayor Judy Nadler of Santa Clara.

Appezzato will speak about his experience at Alameda's Reform Temple Israel during Shabbat services Friday at 8 p.m.

The theme of the conference, "Excavating the Future: Tradition and Technology in the City," resonated strongly for Appezzato, mayor of Alameda for seven years. Like Jerusalem, which has evolved from its primarily agricultural background to embrace the high-tech industry, Alameda, the former site of a major military base, has also gone high tech, he said.

"We discussed how to restore the old while accommodating the new and how to fulfill future needs without destroying culture and history," said the retired U.S. Marine colonel.

"No place in the world can you study that better than in Israel, the cradle of three of the world's great religions."

As so, said Appezzato, Israel made the Bible come alive.

"To visit the sites you've read about not only in history, but in the Bible, and be able to relate to them in person has brought much more meaning to our lives," said Appezzato of himself and his wife, Marilyn, who joined him on the trip. "Whether you're Jewish visiting the Jewish sites or Christian visiting the Christian sites or Muslim visiting the Muslim sites, it has an emotional impact."

While in Jerusalem, the couple planted trees in the Grove of the Mayors of the World in honor of their family and the Jewish community of Alameda. They also met with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Israeli President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"After meeting these men I know that the state of Israel is in good hands," said Appezzato, who presented Sharon with a bottle of Rosenblum wine and a Raiders cap. "Shimon Peres had us in the palm of his hand when he spoke. Sharon, likewise, made a tremendous impact. The mayor was as vibrant and animated and active and warm as any mayor I've ever met. And the President, of course, was equally gracious."

He noted that Sharon may "look like a grouch, but he's not at all!"

Aside from meeting with political diplomats and participating in discussions, the conference also involved extensive touring, taking the mayors both north and south throughout most of the country including the Golan Heights, Tiberius, Masada and Tel Aviv.

"I've been all over — to Burma, Ethiopia, Singapore, Austria, Germany, Kenya," said Appezzato, naming a few countries he's visited. "But if I were to pick just my three favorite places out of all those, Israel would be one of the three."

Appezzato was most impressed with Hadassah Hospital's synagogue, which was surrounded by 12 stained glass windows by Marc Chagall, each representing the 12 tribes of Israel. He gushed over the hospital itself and its level of professionalism, particularly in the children's ward.

"It seemed that they were not only treating those children's bodies but also their minds," he said. "They made it more like a home than a hospital for those kids."

Overall, Appezzato said he felt completely safe during the entire trip and urged those interested in visiting not to be swayed by media coverage painting the country as unsafe.

"What you see and hear in the press is exaggerated," he said. "And what is happening there had little effect on us. We saw no violence or threats to anyone."

In fact, Appezzato emphasized that now is the perfect time to visit.

"Because of the intifada, tourism is down," he said. "It's absolutely wonderful to go to all the sites and not have to fight the crowds."