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Gift of Giving Key Focus of Jewish Holidays

Religion: At services, worshipers will be reminded to support those in Israel. Two-week period begins tonight with Rosh Hashana.


Capacity crowds flocking to High Holy Days services in synagogues throughout Southern California beginning today for Rosh Hashana will hear a common message: Support your Jewish brothers and sisters in war-torn Israel.

Rabbis will ask worshipers, some of whom they won't see until next year's services, to help those in the Jewish homeland in a variety of ways. They'll be asked, for instance, to contribute to a local fund that already has raised $18 million for victims of terrorist attacks or to invest in Israeli bonds. Or simply to send a jar of honey to a needy family living amid the turmoil.

In some Orange County congregations, making a donation won't even require wielding a pen--an act of labor forbidden in synagogues during the holidays. On a preprinted pledge card, worshipers can turn down a tab indicating donations from $25 to $25,000 to the Jewish Federation Israel Emergency Campaign.

"We want to make sure the emotion of the moment isn't lost," said Alison Mayersohn, marketing director for the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Her organization, which has collected $460,000 in recent months specifically for Israel, had 6,000 of the cards printed and distributed to area synagogues.

At Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben will distribute materials giving three ways to financially support Israel--including investing in Israeli bonds.

He said he hopes the diverse plans will bridge any political gaps among temple members--and get 100% participation.

"Every rabbi I know is going to remind their congregation of their special relationship with Israel, their responsibility to Israel and their need to stand by Israel," Reuben said.

The Jewish holiday period begins at sundown tonight with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and ends Sept. 16 with the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

Financial support for Israel among Los Angeles County's more than 500,000 Jews has swelled quickly because of the escalating violence in the Middle East. The Los Angeles-based "Jews in Crisis" campaign, which began five months ago to help Israeli victims of terror, already has raised $18 million.

About $9 million has been spent on everything from ambulances, bomb-sniffing dogs and bulletproof buses to cash for food, rent and counseling.

"This gives people a way to channel their concern and energy," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, coordinator of the campaign.

"This hits a responsive chord in the Jewish community and cuts across ideological ideas. It's the human approach: Giving direct cash contributions for people who have been victimized by terrorism."

Some acts of charity to show solidarity are simpler.

"Honey for the Holidays," an outreach campaign among Orange County's estimated 90,000 Jews, puts a jar of honey--a traditional Rosh Hashana treat that is served with apples and intended to symbolize a sweet new year--on the table of more than 2,000 poor Jewish families living near the Gaza Strip.

"Israelis feel alone and isolated today," said Ira Kerem, a representative for the Jewish Federation of Orange County who lives in Jerusalem and is helping hand out the jars. "This is a small way to show that they are not alone, and that people in at least one location care enough to send them bottles of honey."

The High Holy Days fall this year near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, increasing the somber nature of the observances already weighted by the continued violence in the Middle East.

About 125 members of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California met last month to discuss ways to address these issues during the upcoming holidays.

"The rabbis were really grappling with it all, sharing texts, bouncing ideas off each other on how to present these difficult themes," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the board. "This is going to be a very interesting set of High Holy Days."

Diamond said the rabbis' heightened concern for Israel and the fund-raising efforts "were barometers of what the Jewish community is feeling. There's a universal understanding and appreciation that Israel is facing an unprecedented crisis."

The danger for rabbis this year is the temptation to politicize sermons at what should be a time of heightened spiritual awareness, said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad Center in Yorba Linda.

He said he learned that lesson in 1993 when he used a High Holy Day sermon to call the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization "one of the major mistakes in Jewish history."

"It was the wrong place to talk about it," the rabbi said. During the holidays, when some Jews attend their only services of the year, "we need to talk about how to deepen our spirituality and our godliness, not speak about political flaws."

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