When Aviva Tessler came back from a sabbatical in Israel, she told her friend Jocelyn Krifcher about visiting a young girl who had been wounded in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian terrorists.
“She could not get the image of this one girl out of her head,” Krifcher recalls. “We hear about the fatalities in detail, but the people who have been injured have often been forgotten.”
Last November, Krifcher and Tessler, along with Avivah Litan and Anne Clemons — all of Potomac, Md. — decided to try to help the injured.
The foursome founded Operation Embrace, delivering help and gifts to Israelis wounded in the intifada — anything from cards and letters from schoolchildren to laptop computers and video games.
Observers say Operation Embrace is part of a trend: Around the United States, more and more Jews are getting involved in grass-roots efforts to help Israel during the two-year-old intifada.
“Certainly interest in Israel” has grown over the past two years, says Andi Milens, national director of community relations and communications at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “More people are getting connected, so more are aware of what’s going on.”
The size and scope of efforts depend on each community, Milens said, but the bottom line is that “people care and want to do something.”
Krifcher, whose husband Danny is a JTA board member, already was connected, doing some work for the United Jewish Communities and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But that work “was not really hands-on,” she says.
Operation Embrace is. What began small — with a trip to Israel to bring letters and visit with intifada victims — expanded as donation checks poured in.
“Initially I thought we would just connect with families” in Israel, she says, but now “wonderful things have happened.”
Often it seems that such grass-roots movements can acquire a momentum all their own.
After witnessing the “Passover massacre” suicide bombing in Netanya, which killed 29 people at a seder last March, Michael Dittleman, of New York, sent an e-mail to about 100 friends and acquaintances. He and his wife had decided to help buy a much-needed ambulance for Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross equivalent.
From that one e-mail on April 25, donations in the form of faxes and letters flooded the home of Dittleman, a marketing director for The Sporting News. His success even compelled him to hold two fund raisers, and within a few months he had raised the $69,000 needed to bring the group an ambulance with the most up-to-date features.
Some grass-roots movements even have grown into major organizations.
Neil and Susan Thalheim, of Long Island, are co-founders of the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund, which has raised $5.5 million for the families of terror victims.
In October 2000, the Thalheims organized a benefit concert on Long Island to help intifada terror victims’ families – – of whom there were only about 10 at the time, Neil Thalheim says.
The event was a huge success, raising about $40,000. When the Thalheims couldn’t find an organization to distribute the money, they traveled to Israel to deliver the funds personally.
As the number of attacks has risen, the fund has become a massive endeavor that now occupies the couple full time.
The group works with congregations, Jewish groups and schools around the United States to fund-raise for needy Israeli families hit by terror. They currently aid some 150 families, and hope to pass 500 by the end of the year.
Like many smaller grass-roots campaigns, the organization relies less on major benefactors than on creative fund- raising. Its donor base is now close to 40,000 people.
Their latest campaign is in especially good taste: Teamed with Levana Kirschenbaum of New York’s Levana Restaurant, the group hopes to raise $500,000 by selling a million of Levana’s cookies, which will be baked under Kirschenbaum’s oversight by JCC volunteers in Manhattan.
“Everything we do comes from other people’s ideas,” Thalheim says. “We provide people a tangible way to make connections.”
The fund also sells $5 silver bracelets imprinted with the name and age of a terror victim. So far they have sold 75,000 bracelets, including many to high school and junior high school students.
The bracelets were modeled after ones for American POW’s in the Vietnam War, but they have a special resonance for Jewish activism: Such bracelets also were used to show support for Soviet Jews.
Thalheim, whose background is on Wall Street, said it is important for him to devote his energies to Israel in its moment of need.
While it’s difficult to track down every such grass-roots movement for Israel, many American Jews clearly share Thalheim’s commitment.
“We are finding there have been coalition groups of synagogues” in several New York suburbs “that have banded together, pooling resources and information,” says Harriet Mandel, director of Israel and international affairs for the New York chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
The synagogue groups monitor the media and communicate with elected officials to lobby for Israel.
Other efforts work to rebuild trust destroyed by the violence.
Shmuel Greenbaum’s wife, Shoshana, was killed in the Aug. 9, 2001, bombing at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem. The loss compelled Greenbaum, a computer programmer in New York, to create Partners in Kindness, a nonsectarian group that tries to promote kindness through daily e-mails and a monthly essay contest.
Two months ago, Greenbaum also formed Traditions of Kindness, which works with Jewish organizations “to show all religions the kindness of Jews,” he says.
Greenbaum recently traveled to Israel for his wife’s yahrzeit, and also to meet with various officials in the Education Ministry who he says have pledged to join Traditions in Kindness.
“People are just fascinated with the concept of taking a tragedy and converting it into something wonderful,” he says.
On Aug. 13, a group known as Rally in Israel from Englewood, N.J., led about 1,500 Jews and Christians from six continents to Jerusalem to show support for Israel.
Participants marched through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and were greeted by Israeli teens waving banners and flags. Organizers encouraged participants to contribute as much as possible to the Israeli economy.
Grass-roots movements for Israel have always existed, Mandel says. But, she adds, “when there are any of these terrorist attacks, people get angry, frustrated — and mobilized.”
For more information on the Israel Emergency Campaign visit www.walk4israel.org; for Tradition of Kindness visit www.traditionofkindness.org; for Operation Embrace call 301-983-8867 or e-mail Krifcher at JBKrifcher@aol.com, for Magen David Adom, www.magendavidadom.org.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.