Jerry Shapiro was in no hurry Sunday to finish the five-mile stroll kicking off the 12th Annual Jewish Walk Festival, so he stopped midway through for breakfast. Then, for good measure, he stopped again later for some french fries and a milkshake.
"I made sure I didn't train for this," Shapiro, 42, joked after finishing. "I figured it would be more of a challenge if I made it strictly on guts."
For Shapiro and many other participants in the charity walk-a-thon, the day also had a more serious side. Pinned on the back of Shapiro's T-shirt was a small placard bearing the picture of Evgeny Aisenberg, a Soviet jew arrested earlier this year for "defaming the Soviet state and social system."
"I think it's important for us to show our brothers and sisters in countries like the Soviet Union that we stand behind them 100% and support their fight for freedom," said Shapiro, an Encino resident. "We have to stick together."
Shapiro was among nearly 5,000 people who paced along the streets of the Fairfax district Sunday to help raise money for the United Jewish Fund. The walk-a-thon is held each year in conjunction with the festival, a daylong evet at Pan Pacific Park that celebrates the birth of Israel in 1948, 37 years ago. More than 30,000 attended the festival, flocking around the colorful blue-and-white information booths while enjoying food or entertainment.
A good percentage of those who took part in the walk wore pictures of dissident Soviet Jews on their backs or signed petitions calling on the Soviet Union to release Aisenberg and four other Jews being held "for the crime of teaching the Hebrew language and seeking permission to emigrate to Israel."
Beth Hersh, director of the Commission on Soviet Jewry, said the placards were distributed in an effort to spotlight the plight of Soviet Jews.
"They're all political prisoners," said Hersh, one of the organizers of the effort. "These people have been arrested, but they haven't committed any crime. They're simply trying to be Jews, to live as Jews."
Soviet Scheme Seen
Hersh said the arrest of Aisenberg and other Jews in the Soviet Union is part of a stepped-up effort by that country's leaders "to oust the Jewish culture." She pointed to the recent decline in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union as proof. In 1984, 896 Jews were allowed to leave that country, compared to more than 51,000 in 1979, Hersh said.
"If the Soviets are going to keep the Jews, they ought to allow them to live like Jews--to study the culture and study Hebrew," Hersh said.
Her message was echoed by several of the people who flooded Pan Pacific Park for the festival.
"I'm concerned about what's happening to Jews in Russia," said Candice Collins, 35, of West Hollywood. "I'd like to see them have the same religious freedoms we enjoy in the United States."
Concentration Camp Survivor
Samual Waizman, 62, looks at it from a different perspective. Waizman, a native of Warsaw, spent two years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
"From the whole family, I am the only one left," Waizman said, wiping away a tear. "I hate to talk about it. It makes my stomach turn."
Now a resident of Los Angeles, Waizman draws parallels between the nightmare of his own past and what Soviet Jews are experiencing today.
"I know what's happening to them has happened to me," he said, looking down at the grass. "I know that when you have not your freedom, that is the end. There is nothing else to look for in life."