Time for Change

By Ari Bussel

Human nature is absolutely adverse to change.

For this very reason, the very idea of change meets with resistance and great friction. However, change is inevitable. Such was the Industrial Revolution, resulting in better conditions for the working masses, and so was the Technological Race in which we are now, from the advent of the computer to amazing new communication frontiers.

Change often stems from the inadequacy of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Or, from the availability of a better alternative. Thus, Arabian youth, the majority in any Arab country, sees the West and strives to better its own lives.

Society must embrace the quest for change, if that change strives to improve, although it is human tendency to resist with all one’s might.

One such case in point is the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

If you ask me what does the Federation do, I would not be able to answer. Thus, the next question is: Is it necessary for the Federation to exist, the logical answer is no.

Do not misunderstand me: The Federation spends millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, and raises even more. They sit at a main building on Wilshire Blvd., protected by olive trees from a car hitting the building and exploding, and have satellite operations all throughout Los Angeles.

When the Consulate needs something, they cross the street to the Federation, a center of power. Yet, the Federation failed the previous Consul General time after time. Dayan wanted large events in support of Israel, mega-events with many thousands of people showing up. He wanted one when Turkey sent a terrorist flotilla to “break the blockade” by Egypt and Israel over Gaza. Less than 2,000 people showed up, and noticeably absent were the American Jews – those Jewish members of Greater Los Angeles.

Where was the Federation? It brought out placards, with words no one knew to pronounce (“de-le-gitim-ization”), and the lady in charge of the placards was hesitant to give them out (“we will need them in the future,” she said to my utter bewilderment – why did you bother to bring them then, and print them in the first place, I asked). But the multitudes were sorely – and visibly – missing.

It happened on other occasions as well, as the five thousand strong figure of the demonstration in the Summer of 2006 quickly faded away from our collective memories, along with the real threat of tens of thousands of missiles stockpiled around Israel. Ignoring reality is not a long term solution, although it makes the present more comfortable and accommodating.

Even at times of great happiness, such as Israel’s Independence Day, the Jews stayed away, and the Federation also turned its back, pulling out funding from the traditional gathering of all Angeleno Jews and Israelis.

What was wrong? Was it the “Nakba” (the “disaster” of Israel’s coming into being)? Was it the feeling Israel is at fault for the unbecoming death of the Turkish “peace activists?” Or maybe it is the ongoing discontent by the local American Jewry with everything Israel does?

“Settlements,” “Occupation,” “Two States for Two People” and “Peace” are the headlines that concern many in the local community, as they move further and further apart from Israel.

Engagement? Whom do we need to engage – the community at large, the youth, seniors, religious schools and institutions or maybe the Israeli portion of the community? Well, there is a director of engagement, who came to the Federation from AIPAC. Two interesting points – the first, her two predecessors were too much to the left to be “Israel advocates” to the taste of the major benefactor who underwrote this endeavor. He threaten to take his money away – a threat not taken lightly since many of the large benefactors were his friends. (He since passed away.)

However, more concerning is the fact that many in the community are in the opinion that “AIPAC DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME.”

The Federation does wonderful things, like teaching the community about “civil discourse.” Civil indeed – as long as you do not express opinions that are not to the liking of the heads of the Federation. You will easily find how quickly you are banned from participation, removed from invitee lists and generally become a persona-non-grata. Civil, but separate. The tent is large enough, but please – not for you.

This, incidentally, is not unique to OUR Federation. In Orange County, an advocate alerting the community to what is happening on the UC Irvine campus and the insidious ways in which our enemies set up traps for us (for instance, using the olive tree, a symbol of peace for us, as a symbol of resistance-by-all-means-possible) is treated exactly in this manner.

Institutions were warned funding would be cut-off if she were allowed to appear, talk or participate in events. Letters went out to the community (on Federation dime of course) maligning her, and when all else failed, a concerted campaign against her has ensued.

Let us return to the Jewish Federation of Greater LA. I think of an elephant sitting in a China store, or a bear baking in the sun at UCLA. Immovable, because of its size and the consequences each such move does – from utter discomfort of physical activity to the mayhem of unintended destruction.

For instance, is J Street good for the Jews? The answer should be obvious: “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace,” are we not all? Embrace J Street as our tent is large and wide. For the higher-ups at the Federation, the issue is very problematic. They cannot say “yes,” they cannot say “no.” Either way, some of the large donors will become alarmed: Many support J Street, while others think it is a real danger to Israel. So what do they do, these higher-ups? Try to ignore the question, bury it under rubble and stone. “Support? you ask, how so? By giving them money? By passing a resolution?” And so they continue, confusing the “enemy” (the person who innocently asked the question) to the point of exhaustion. Does anyone wonder why we lawyers are not very much liked among civilized circles?

The Federation has many programs and organizations it supports. So many, in fact, that the most basic needs get lost. People without home and shelter? People without a job? Seniors without a person to check up upon them that they are still alive? Hot meals? Taxi coupons? Social services? Those whose world suddenly turned on them and they do not know to whom to turn?

The former president of the Federation was in Israel at a major celebration when I raised some of these questions. I was alarmed of the number of instances of people – just like me – who are faced with challenges they never thought possible. The Federation has services to meet such needs, I shouted, but how does one know about them, let alone benefit from them?

Oh, it was very important to be in Israel, as it is very important to entertain here. But entertainment does not get the job done. Another member of the Federation understood the depths of despair and came up with a good idea, touching a single facet of the complex of needs: FED UP WITH HUNGER.

Imagine this would have been the priority of the Federation. In a short period of time miracles would have been created in front of our very eyes. However, is the situation intrinsically better today than it was before the “crisis?” Are things drastically different than before the well-publicized let’s-raise-funds stunt?

Look at the lines of those who need food. Or just look around and see those who are ashamed to turn to help. Else, visit some of the organizations, and ask yourself, “would I want to receive service here?” I happened to be on Fairfax when an elderly person was bleeding in front of the Jewish Family Service center. I vowed never to set foot there again, after taking the person in a taxi I instructed to drive as quickly as possible to Cedars.

You see, JFS has employees who are bureaucrats. They work nine to five and cannot think outside the box. Why do they have emergency aid kits or training is beyond me, when such will not be put to use when needed.

Like them is the Federation: well equipped but completely disconnected.

They go, hundreds strong, to Israel. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, bus operators, a wonderful thing. Then they return and try to send the message of Israel to the community at large – Jews and Gentiles alike. “Occupation. Tear down the Settlements. Peace. Palestine and Jerusalem its capital. A continuum between Gaza and the West Bank. Return. Give. Dismantle.”

What a great vision of Israel.

And this is the main crux of things. Young American Jews, if they are not from Orthodox homes, are more and more distanced from Israel and from Judaism. The community is not so healthy, nor is it united, and “civility” is a textbook word that is neither practiced nor welcomed in the community. Divided we stand and we argue: Who talks for us.

Things of the past crumble in front of our very eyes. Centers of the community? Where are they now? Who supports and protects synagogues (not only the safety but also the health and vitality of Judaism, from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox)? Fairfax – now a place to get $50 t-shirts of $200 shoes. Jewish theater, culture, music?

What happened to the main pillars of our community in the last few decades? They withered then crumpled, devoid of any substance, although the façade still looks impressive, over-towering.

Decades ago there was an emphasis on youth, on continuity. Assimilation happened then too, so the elders, in their wisdom, set out to combat the alarming signs.

Today, we stand a fragmented, divided community, and those at the helm are concerned with politics. Democrats (predominantly) against Republicans. Those who support President Obama’s Hope and Change vs. those who woke up already from this nightmarish scenario. Pro-Israel vs. other types of “Pro-Israel.” Reform against Orthodox (or is it the other way around, yet with the same intensity of hurt feelings).

On all those counts, the Federation fails, but it still asks for and expects our money. For the money, incidentally, we receive a barrage of more e-mails, more phone calls, more requests. You are good for one thing, and one thing only: GIVE US YOUR MONEY. WE NEED IT. WE DESERVE IT.

Then “TRUST US,” we know what is best for the community. We have enormous needs – hundreds of salaried employees, top earners, trips and celebrations. We need to host politicians and cultivate the relationship. We have exclusive briefings and we decide how to spread your money. We know best!

You will receive from us a full-color glossy brochure with the pictures of the top donors, and you will be constantly asked for more. But what is done with all this money? Where is the Federation when a single person – you are I – is in need? How is the power of a community, united, when anti-Semitism is on the rise and anti-Israel sentiment and activities are at an all time high?

There is newcomer to town, already filling in the wide gaps left by the Federation. Read all about it in the next installment, “A Leader is Born.”