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The Voice of History Came on Shortwave

Lillian Heller Conrad of Laguna Hills smiled when I asked if she could remember where she was 50 years ago today. She knew the moment like her wedding day, or the births of her two children.

“Our whole family was gathered around a shortwave radio at our home, listening to the voice of David Ben-Gurion.”

The Jewish leader’s somber voice crackled over the airwaves, making its way from Tel Aviv, where he formally announced the establishment of the state of Israel.

“When he finished, there was silence at first; we were in disbelief after so many years of waiting. Then there was this euphoria that was almost uncontrollable.”

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Two nights later, her family joined the large Jewish celebration of the new nation at the Hollywood Bowl.

“My father didn’t want me to go; I was nine months’ pregnant with my first child. He said it would be madness for me to attend. But I refused to miss the jubilation. This was something we--my family--had worked to create.”

Today marks the official 50th anniversary of the birth of Israel, spiritual homeland for the world’s Jews. Vice President Al Gore is in Israel today for commemorative events. Heller Conrad and hundreds of other locals will celebrate at an Independence Day dinner tonight at the Hyatt Newporter. Most who will attend know Heller Conrad has a special reason to rejoice.

Her maternal grandfather, Sandor Solomon, had been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress before World War I. It was dedicated to the creation of a homeland for Jews. Her father, Irving Klein, was later a delegate to that congress. And in 1972, Heller Conrad--"third-generation Zionist,” she proudly says--was also a World Zionist Congress delegate.

The goal to create a Jewish homeland was never just something her family talked about after synagogue. It was a part of their everyday lives.

“We held fund-raisers, wrote letters, went on marches, led discussion groups,” she told me. “We did whatever we could to try to influence world opinion.”

I asked numerous people active in local Jewish affairs to name someone here from the 1940s with strong ties to Israel. All of them named Heller Conrad first. Ed Cushman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, said he first met Heller Conrad in Los Angeles in the 1980s. She was active in the Jewish Federation there while he was a graduate student at Hebrew Union College.

“She is highly knowledgeable, and very focused on her work,” Cushman said. “Her type of activism here was an important factor when Israel was created.”

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Much of Heller Conrad’s work over the years has been through Hadassah, an international Jewish women’s group. She is its former president for this region, which covers six states. Her work and family ties have taken her on seven trips to Israel.

She’s also on the board of the Orange County Jewish Federation. It’s an umbrella organization that’s putting on a series of Israel 50th anniversary events, including tonight’s dinner.

Heller Conrad, 74, said she will keep working for Israel the rest of her life. Fund-raising and education, she said, have been an ongoing process for American Jews throughout Israel’s 50-year history.

“Resources there have always been so limited,” she told me. “Israel’s need for our support has never stopped.”

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Over the years, Heller Conrad has helped host events for former Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir and Ben-Gurion. “I’ve been so blessed,” she said, “to be in the midst of history.”

But growing up, Heller Conrad said, she wondered if her father’s and grandfather’s dreams of a Jewish homeland would ever happen.

She recalls her father’s returning from a trip to Europe in 1932, worried about a new wave of anti-Semitism.

“There was great despair,” she said, “especially after the tragedy of Hitler and so many millions of Jews killed or left homeless.”

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And when independence for Israel finally came, she said, “celebrating was tempered by the knowledge that it came at the expense of so many left in ashes.”

Heller Conrad said recent anniversary-related events have led her to think back to how she and her sister were raised by their parents, Irving and Dora Klein, now both deceased.

“We were activists. We helped reshape the contours of the world. I am so enriched by having that opportunity.”

I asked Heller Conrad why non-Jews should be excited about Israel’s 50th anniversary. For the same reason, she said, we should all applaud the changes in South Africa.

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“We all grow up with a sense of decency, of wanting the right thing. Any triumph over repression is a triumph for all of us.”

I left Heller Conrad’s home thinking about that family gathering around the shortwave radio 50 years ago. I wondered what words by Ben-Gurion left them all so riveted. By Internet, I came across the text of his speech.

Here are a few lines from that historic Ben-Gurion declaration:

“Survivors of the Nazi Holocaust never cease to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland. . . .

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“We extend our hand to all neighboring states in an offer of peace and good neighborliness--and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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