Local Jewish Community Questions Cost of Peace

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thirteen days ago, Cheri Dekofsky knew exactly how she felt about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She was in favor of it.

But four bombings and 61 deaths later, she--and many others in Ventura County's small Jewish community--are no longer so sure.

"Right now, today, I can't tell you how I feel," said Dekofsky at a reception this week at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. "If it means more bloodshed and that children in costumes celebrating the holiday have to die. I can't tell you."

She is not alone.

As rabbis across the county prepare to dedicate their Sabbath services today to those killed and wounded in the latest in a series of suicide bombings in Israel, even the staunchest supporters of the peace process keep returning to one question: "At what price?"

Fred Grund learned his answer early Monday as he paced the kitchen of his Thousand Oaks home, waiting to hear whether his 20-year-old daughter, a university student in Israel, was a victim of the blast.

Deborah Grund was one block from the explosion, shopping for a skirt, when the suicide bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv's busiest shopping center Monday, killing 13. The explosion was the fourth in Israel in just over a week.

"I was a very firm supporter of peace and so was my wife," Grund said. "We still are very firmly for it, but not at this high a cost."

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Although they have agreed to allow their daughter to stay in Israel, Grund said his instructions to her have gone from, "Don't take any more buses" to "Stay on campus. Don't go anywhere."

Leaders of Ventura County's Jewish community--about 2,000 families strong--say they and their congregations are torn over whether Israel should remain on the path to peace with its Palestinian neighbors or strike back against the terrorist bombings.

"Absolutely I support the peace process," said Rabbi Alan Greenbaum of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks. "But the peace process does not necessarily mean that we don't respond to terrorist elements in society."

Forgoing the traditional prayer before a dinner with his temple's board of directors, Thousand Oaks Rabbi Shimon Pascow on Tuesday told the leaders of his congregation, "We are not out to destroy them, but they are out to destroy us."

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Quoting the Book of Maccabees, which recounts the Jewish struggle for independence about 165 B.C., Pascow told his listeners that the Jewish people have a history of fighting back against their enemies, even on the Sabbath.

"People have been telling me that is not the Jewish way," he said. "But I'm saying fight back or die. The mitzvah [commandment] is to live, not to die."

Despite his outrage, Rabbi Michael Berk of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura said he would be urging his congregation to continue to support the peace process.

"I am trying to resist the hysteria that says, 'Strike back, blow them up, hurt them badly,' " he said. "That is an expression of the terrible pain we feel. But what will it accomplish?"

Just months ago, the peace process was moving forward and Jews across the county were planning trips to Israel and contemplating plans to send their children there to study.

But in a matter of days, many say their belief that they, as tourists, or their Israeli counterparts will ever board a bus in Tel Aviv or cross a street without fear is waning.

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The trips have been canceled. Plans to send sons and daughters to the Holy Land to study have been postponed. Those who have never written a letter to their congressional representative, wrote the president.

And on Monday, many spent Purim, traditionally a joyous celebration, glued to the television set where they saw the bloody remains of Israelis clad in the holiday's festive costumes.

"The last bombing affected me the most,' said Aliza Berk, Rabbi Michael Berk's wife and a rabbi herself. Michael Berk's congregation is planning a summer trip to Israel.

"Prior to this, we thought [the bombing] is on public transportation so we could just hire a private bus, but the last one was in the middle of an intersection, so you just feel very defenseless," Aliza Berk said.

Even for those without Israeli relatives, Monday's explosion at the well-known intersection of King George and Dizengoff--one woman called the latter the Rodeo Drive of Tel Aviv--struck especially close to home for many Ventura County Jews who travel regularly to Israel.

"People were turning on their television sets and going, 'I've been there,' " said Wendy Margolis, a Thousand Oaks resident. "That is where the Hard Rock Cafe is. It's incredible because I remember going through that metal detector."

Despite their fears and doubts, most rabbis are urging their congregations not to give in to terror by canceling their flights to the Holy Land.

"It's a matter of will and determination," Pascow said. "We have to be strong."

FYI

The following synagogues will be adding special prayers to their regular Friday Sabbath service at 8 p.m. Adat Elohim-Reform Temple of the Conejo Valley, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, Rabbi Alan Greenbaum; Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, Rabbi Shimon Pascow, and Temple Beth Torah, 7620 Foothill Road, Ventura, Rabbi Michael Berk.

* SUMMIT

The president will address terrorism with Mideast leaders. A1

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