NEW YORK (JTA) – Gabrielle Flaum always has been involved Jewishly, from attending a Jewish summer camp to participating in social action programs. But the New Jersey teenager’s summer trip to Israel in 2006 with a Reform youth group elevated that involvement to a new level.
Three days after the group arrived, Hezbollah began firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel from Lebanon. A friend of Flaum’s Israeli counselor was among the first Israelis killed in the war, and later the counselor left the group when his IDF reserve unit was mobilized.
Flaum was so moved by the experience that upon her arrival back home in Millburn, she started SOS: Save our Soldiers, a teen advocacy group dedicated to securing the release of Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit, the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in the summer of 2006.
Twenty to 30 Jewish teens, including some who had never connected to Israel, now gather at the Flaum home for SOS meetings once or twice a month.
The group successfully lobbied the New Jersey state Legislature to adopt a resolution last year calling on the United Nations to help free the soldiers – the first such resolution adopted in the United States. And it also had the idea to place empty chairs on synagogue pulpits during the High Holidays, an act of solidarity that was widely adopted across the country.
“I knew that I needed to do something,” Flaum, 17, told JTA. “For the families of the soldiers, I really understood. I came to really love this counselor and he had a really large impact on my life. It could have been any one of them.”
Along with the plight of Israelis suffering from Arab rocket fire, in particular those in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, the cause of Israel’s missing soldiers has galvanized American Jewry like few Israel-related issues have in recent years.
From the $360 million raised in 2006 to help Israel’s North after a month of rocket attacks to the 150,000 signatures on a petition to the secretary-general of the United Nations calling for the release of the MIAs, to the dozen MIA-related groups started on the popular social networking Web site Facebook, the causes of the MIAs and the Israeli communities under Arab fire have prompted American Jewry to close ranks.
“Israel’s security and defense always evoke a strong response and overwhelming consensus in the American Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “Both these issues – Sderot and the MIAs – fit into that pattern.”
The One Family Fund, a nonprofit organization that sends money to Israeli victims of terrorism, has found that the issues resonate with supporters.
In the Miami area, the group placed mock Kassam rockets on some 150 homes with signs expressing solidarity with the people of Sderot. One South Florida home had as many as 100 rockets arrayed on its property with a 25-foot sign that read, “Sderot We are With You.”
“I grew up on the phrase ‘Never again,’ as many people did,” said Mimi Jankovits, the director of One Family Fund’s Southeastern Region, which hatched the idea of the Kassam reproductions. “And I feel like once again we’re at that point where Jewish people are being put into danger, they’re living in fear, because they’re Jewish and because they’re living in a free, democratic Jewish state.”
One Family Fund has raised $1 million for Sderot since December, compared to $3.7 million raised for general terror relief in the past fiscal year. That support, officials say, was motivated in part by the stories of those who had seen the plight of Sderot residents firsthand.
Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, says the issues of Sderot and Israel’s captive soldiers resonate with people.
“They’re focused, they’re human, they’re the kind of issues that motivate people’s hearts and minds,” Gutow said. “People tend to focus on individual experiences that in some way relate to their own lives. When you talk about war and peace, that’s way out there, beyond the ken. But when you’re talking about an MIA, people say that could be my son, that could be my brother.”
Some organizations also use the Sderot issue to advance political agendas.
The Zionist Organization of America, which sponsored a citywide Purim party in Sderot and distributed 5,000 food parcels, regularly releases statements citing the rocket fire there as evidence of Israel’s misbegotten hope to negotiate with its enemies.
“This demonstrates that there should be no further concessions and rewards to the P.A., and no further uprooting of thousands of Jews from their homes, as is being planned on an even grander scale by the current Olmert government,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a November news release echoing Israeli officials’ criticism of the Gaza withdrawal.
Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal group based in San Francisco that describes the attacks on Sderot as a violation of international law, points to Sderot as evidence of the need for an entirely different political agenda.
“Starving 1.5 million Gazans will not bring security, justice or peace to Israelis, Palestinians or Jews anywhere,” the group said in a recent ad in The Nation.
The group called both for the release of Shalit and Palestinian “political prisoners” and “administrative detainees” held by Israel on security grounds without trial.
The breadth and nature of the Jewish community’s response to Sderot and the MIA issue has prompted some comparisons to the Soviet Jewry movement, the last Jewish cause to ignite the passions of a broad swath of American Jews.
Nancy Kisslin Flaum, Gabrielle’s mother and a veteran of that movement, says she is heartened to see teens today standing up for their beliefs.
“As a Jewish educator, and I’m a therapist, what I’ve loved about everything over the last year and a half working with the kids” is that “this issue has been an issue that almost everybody can wrap their arms around and jump on board,” Nancy Flaum said.
“It’s been a long time since the Soviet Jewry movement,” she went on. “To see teens have a voice and make a difference – that’s why doors opened so fast. People paid attention.”