Cookie Lommel had been thinking a lot about the much-belabored state of relations between blacks and Jews. As a journalist for music trade publications, she had seen black artists and entrepreneurs work side by side with Jewish music executives every day. As a curious observer (and free-lance journalist) she had hopped a plane for Israel to witness for herself the integration of black Ethiopian Jews into the fabric of Israeli Jewish life. “African Americans and Jews in the music industry get along so well,” muses Lommel, a 38-year-old black woman who now writes young adult books on influential black Americans. “Nobody talks about that.” Lommel came back from her 1991 trip to Israel so impressed by how well the Ethiopians and the Israelis she encountered had melded together that she wondered: Why not find a way to bring together African Americans and Israeli Jews?
She talked to people in organizations already devoted to improving relations between blacks and Jews. And she chanced upon a screening of the documentary “Black to the Promised Land,” which followed 11 black Brooklyn high school students through a three-month stay on a kibbutz.
Intrigued, she came up with the idea of sending local black and Latino high school students to a kibbutz in Israel. “When you take a look at what a kibbutz is,” says Lommel of the work cooperatives common in Israel, “it’s an organization where everyone has to work for the benefit of all.”
But it would take three years for Lommel to transform Operation Unity from a concept to a reality in the summer of 1994. In between would be rounds of fund raising, getting pledges, losing pledges, and then raising more funds before 10 students from Roosevelt and Crenshaw high schools could be transformed into kibbutzniks .
“I got encouragement--but not a lot of money,” says Lommel ruefully, sitting in the living room of the Westside home she shares with her husband, Ulli, a German-born film producer and director.
“I think people sort of underestimated her, thinking they could get rid of her if they just said ‘yes,’ ” says Sandy Wolfson, the high school guidance counselor Lommel recruited to choose the students and go on the trip with them. “But what they didn’t know was she has a very strong backbone and she would pursue it. The pursuit took a long time though.”
It took so long that when Wolfson left for Israel, she only had $250 in her pocket for two months with 10 teen-agers, another teacher and a teacher’s aide. Lommel--who did not make the trip herself--had just managed to buy the plane tickets the day before the flight. “Up to the very moment they left, I was at the bank trying to get money,” says Lommel. She says she raised almost $50,000 for the trip and is still trying to pay off some debts from the journey.
Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represents East Los Angeles, jump-started their fund-raising efforts, putting Lommel and her crew in touch with a variety of local business people who finally came through with funds.
It was a less difficult task to find the right African American and Latino students for the odyssey. Wolfson, then a guidance counselor at Roosevelt High School, chose students from Crenshaw and Roosevelt based on teacher recommendations.
“Many of our kids were ‘at-risk’ kids,” says Wolfson, who is now a counselor at Hamilton High School. One of the teen-agers was on the edge of gang activity. Another had been shot. “They may not have been from fabulous backgrounds but they had potential,” Wolfson says.
Students immersed themselves in the work of the Beit Zera kibbutz--some of them harvesting bananas, some working in the kibbutz’s factory or the kitchen that serves the kibbutz workers.
The students lived in dormitory facilities but spent hours in the homes of kibbutz families who essentially adopted the students and lavished attention on them. One Latino student, who basically grew up without a mother or father, spent time with his adopted “mother,” who had come to Israel from Argentina. The two spoke Spanish together constantly.
“Some of them really blossomed,” says Wolfson. “I think it was a sense of community . . . working together, everybody caring about everyone else.”
Today, five of the 10 students are in college.
In the end, the purpose of the trip was less a primer in racial relations and more a look at forging bonds through work and living together. And not just between the Israelis and the Americans. Lommel says that initially the African Americans and the Latino students mostly stayed to themselves along ethnic lines.
“Then that totally fell away,” she says. “The point of sending them to a kibbutz was to see in action how people who work together have no time to think about religion and what color your skin is.”
It was also a lesson for people on the kibbutz, recalls Lommel: “They said ‘We didn’t know anything--all we ever see is black guys playing basketball.’ ”
Now, Lommel is raising funds to send another group some time this fall or early winter. She hopes to include Korean teen-agers as well--and send them off with a camera.
“This time I want the kids to do a film from their point of view,” she says.
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Today’s centerpiece explores how one woman tries to forge better understanding between blacks and Jews by taking youths to Israel.
For more information about Operation Unity, call (310) 473-5918.