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Behind the Headlines: While Pitching in to Help Neighbors, L.a. Jews Rediscover Communal Spirit

May 13, 1992
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A week after the riots that destroyed much of South Central Los Angeles, and with National Guardsmen still on patrol, the Jewish community seemed to be rediscovering a sense of shared fate with its multiethnic neighbors that most Jews have not felt since the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.

Jews have stepped up their aid efforts to the riot-torn sections. At the same time, rough estimates of the damage to Jewish-owned businesses indicate the losses were heavier than originally believed.

The Refugee Acculturation Program of the Jewish Federation Council found that 45 businesses owned by Iranian Jews and six owned by former Soviet Jews were burned or looted. These included electronics and furniture stores, pawn shops and dental offices.

Sources in the local Israeli community estimated that between 10 and 20 stores owned by Israelis were hit. They were mainly electronic appliances and retail clothing outlets. Stories are circulating about how Israelis, armed with Uzis and shotguns, scared off would-be looters.

No one yet has toted up the losses suffered by American Jewish businessmen, but it seems likely the figure will be in the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher. Insurance companies will likely cover a major portion of the damage.

One of the victims was Richard Giesberg, whose attitude and experience seem typical of Jews affected by the riots.


Giesberg, a Jewish community leader long active in black-Jewish relations, held the men’s clothing concession at the large Fedco discount store. On April 30, the first full day of rioting, looters cleaned him out to the tune of about 500 suits, 300 sport coats, 300 jackets and 8,000 slacks and jeans.

He was able to save one delivery truck, and two days later he stocked it with donated food and, with a rabbi at his side, drove to a black church in the inner city.

At latest count, 30 synagogues and campus Hillel centers are collecting clothing and food which are being delivered mainly to black churches for distribution.

Reforms temples predominate in the aid drive, followed by Conservative congregations.

But even the Orthodox community, traditionally little involved with non-Jewish groups, is supporting a job-training and employment program in minority areas.

Mazon, a Jewish anti-hunger organization, is the community’s coordinator to channel financial aid to relief programs in the black, Hispanic and Korean areas.

So far, $35,000 has come in through donations averaging $85 apiece, said Mazon director Irving Cramer.

About 300,000 pounds of fresh produce have been delivered to a dozen churches through the efforts of philanthropist Mickey Weiss.

But Jewish groups realize that material assistance, while an immediate need, may not be the most important response to the Los Angeles crisis.

The Anti-Defamation League has scheduled two seminars for public school teachers, as part of its long-standing prejudice-reduction training program, “A World of Difference.”

All segments of the Jewish community are represented in an emergency committee, which has appointed two task forces — one to connect with other ethnic groups, the other to evaluate the impact of the civic upheaval on the Jewish community.

Rabbi Harvey Fields, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, heads the “outside” committee. He reported Monday that working ties have been established with black and Korean political, business and religious leaders.

Relations with the Hispanic community is somewhat lagging, said Fields, because it lacks an organized central body.

Learning from previous mistakes, Fields said that “we’re very careful not to come in offering our wisdom, but we’re asking them in what ways we can be the most helpful.”


Fields said that he received an especially warm welcome from the 300,000-strong Korean community. Korean businessmen, who have largely taken over the inner city stores once owned by Jews, were hit hardest during the rampage and see themselves as its principal victims.

The Koreans “want to learn how the Jewish community is organized, how it functions and raises funds,” Fields said.

The second task force, focusing on the Jewish community itself, is headed by Harold Schulweis, a leading Conservative rabbi, and Rabbi Laura Geller of the American Jewish Congress.

Schulweis said in an interview that the aftermath of the riots presents an opportunity to reverse the insular and inward-looking preoccupation of American Jews with just their own interests and to recapture “our noble tradition of compassion for the stranger.”

A return to the concepts of universalism and humanitarianism is crucial, if only to retain the allegiance of idealistic young Jews, Schulweis said.

To that end, he hopes to break down the barriers between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform youth movements by forming a non-ideological group that would put into practical terms the biblical injunction to love your neighbor as yourself.

There is also an opportunity for the Jewish community to serve as a “mediating force” between the often hostile black, Hispanic and Korean communities in Los Angeles, said Schulweis.


Many anecdotes are making the rounds. One relates to the visit here of eight Ethiopian-born high school students from Israel.

On the first evening of riots, the youngsters attended a seder with 100 black and Hispanic students from local public schools, who were instructed in Passover rituals and songs by Rabbi Fields.

When the seder ended, the bus driver for a group of Hispanic students had heard about the violence and instructed the youngsters to sit on the floor of the bus. He turned off the lights and drove off.

As the darkened bus crossed the violent city, the students, still full of the seder spirit, burst into a song they had just learned: Dayenu (Enough).

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