Local Jews on JCF solidarity mission express hope

JERUSALEM — Many of the 43 Bay Area Jews on the solidarity mission to Israel headed there with feelings of helplessness. They returned last week with a glimmer of hope.

That hope came in spite of arriving in Tel Aviv March 7 to a newspaper headline proclaiming the week one of the bloodiest in recent Israeli history. It came in spite of a suicide bombing that killed 11 young adults just minutes from the Jerusalem hotel where they were staying.

And it came in spite of the violence that continued to flare up well into the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation group's departure.

"I've become more optimistic," explained Mark Miller, who works in real estate lending and investing. "Jewish history is strong — Israel and Israeli institutions are strong. Being here confirmed that in my mind."

Miller, who formerly lived in Israel but hadn't been back in 12 years, was growing "increasingly pessimistic" about the future of Israel due to "the breakdown in peace talks between Arafat and Barak" leading to the current uprising.

But getting away from San Francisco and seeing Israel firsthand completely changed his perspective. It "re-energized me," he said, for the fight to protect the Jewish state.

Like Miller, many on the weeklong mission through Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Upper Galilee felt rededicated to Israel, the Bay Area Jewish community and their own Jewish identity.

Judith Brickman of Walnut Creek joined the mission because her family of four grown children had given her the trip as a birthday present. She had not been to Israel since 1974 and was looking forward to revisiting the country.

But the bubbly, brunette who works in real estate got more than the visit she'd bargained for — "I felt like I was reborn as a Jew."

Anita Nathan, a retired social worker, had a similar experience. Early on in the mission Nathan's frustration with the ongoing conflict, the blood and destruction, led her to ask her husband, Marvin, a grave question.

"She asked me, 'Why be a Jew?'" the semi-retired CPA related to the rest of the group on the last night of their stay.

But she felt differently after the mission had visited a Bedouin village in Tuba and a citizen's rights center for Southern Lebanese Army immigrants in Akko, both of which help Israelis who are non-Jews and are flourishing with the help of funds from the S.F.-JCF. This reminded Anita Nathan of the Jewish commitment to helping others, even amid conflict. She once again felt truly proud of her heritage.

Marvin Nathan is convinced that physically being in Israel is the key to this type of transformation; and it's a far cry from being at home, helplessly watching Israeli terror unfold in the media.

"When you read about the horrible things that go on in Israel it's as if you're detached," he explained. "It has no meaning compared to seeing the people and hearing the people."

Even reading Israeli newspapers, as opposed to U.S. ones, greatly impacted Marvin Nathan. Flipping to the op-ed section of Ha'aretz, he pointed to a story in the middle of the page, "about parents going out of the house separately because they fear if they're both killed there will be no one to care for their children."

Clutching the newspaper tightly, he shook his head from side to side.

"It's unreal to think about," he said. "It sends shivers down your spine.

"You wouldn't read about that [in San Francisco]."

Those who stood witness to the destruction caused by suicide bombers shared similar revelations.

When Ed Cushman and Dan Cohen stood near the remains of Café Moment a few days after it was attacked on March 9, for instance, they agreed "there isn't a photograph" that could portray the destruction accurately.

"It's monstrous," said Cushman, assistant executive director and campaign director for the federation, adding that he had gained a new respect for the way "Israelis look into the face of danger" each and every day of their lives.

"Pictures aren't real," said Cohen, an urban planner in San Francisco.

"This," he said, pointing to the skeletal remains of the café and scattered debris, "this is real."

But apart from the tension and danger, San Rafael resident Jeff Krieger pointed out all the "good things" taking place in Israeli society "that you don't hear enough about" in the American media. For instance, while visiting a park in Gan Sacar, the second grade teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin saw Israelis barbecuing and having birthday parties.

And though Krieger admitted that finding a solution to the conflict may take awhile, he said "in the meantime we [American Jews] can accomplish a great amount working with individuals and communities in Israel."

Robert Raful agreed. During the mission he met with a group of Israeli and Arab high school students who study and socialize together peacefully. The experience was a revelation to the Santa Rosa resident and grandfather: It totally disproved "everything I read that says 'they're not going to be satisfied until we're all dead.'"

Raful is now convinced "there is hope. Maybe not in my generation, but in the long run."

The turning point for Ilana Gauss was a memorial service held by the mission outside the remains of the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, where a suicide bomber killed 21 Israelis and wounded more than 100 in June 2001.

Gauss had packed her "dancing shirts" in case she felt comfortable enough to go to a disco, but realized "that won't be happening" soon after she arrived in Israel. When the San Mateo resident saw the Dolphinarium memorial that read "We won't stop dancing" she couldn't hold back her tears.

"I wasn't that affected when I heard about it on the news because I kept seeing awful stuff over and over again and I had become desensitized to it," said Gauss, who does recycling outreach for the county of San Mateo. "But being there really helped me visualize the attack as if I had been there."

The memorial also had a strong impact on Haim Mishan, a security guard on the mission. Having just finished his service in the Israeli army five months earlier, the Tel Aviv resident, like many Israelis and American Jews, had been growing disillusioned about the possibility for peace.

"For me it was a great moment," he said, when the group began singing "Hatikvah" ("The Hope"), Israel's national anthem.

"Here were Jews from another country reminding us that there is some hope. Some of the people in my country seem to be losing hope.

"This," he said, "is a sign to carry on."