Israeli NGO Sends Aid to California in Wake of Unprecedented Wildfires

IsraAID’s emergency response team provides help building resilience and recovery in communities hard hit by the deadly blazes.

By: Nicky Blackburn;

Smoke billows from the Woolsey fire in California. Photo by Shutterstock

Israeli NGO, IsraAID, is sending an emergency response team to California to help communities affected by the unprecedented fires that have killed 80 and destroyed over 13,000 homes and buildings. More than 1,300 people are still listed as missing.

The two blazes broke out 10 days ago in both north and south California and quickly spiraled out of control. The Camp Fire wildfire, which wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte county (population 27,000), is already the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, torching an area the size of Chicago.

The Woolsey fire has burned over 98,362 acres in southern California near the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

After a request from local communities, IsraAID is to conduct a needs assessment of the population in affected areas, promote community resilience and recovery, and distribute relief items to families currently staying in temporary accommodation after losing their homes in the fires.

An IsraAID worker helps sort donations in California, in the wake of the deadly fires. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

Yotam Polizer, the co-CEO of IsraAID, told ISRAEL21c that a team of four Israelis have already flown out to California, and plan to set up operations in Chico, where many evacuees are now living in tent cities, shelters and even sleeping in their cars.

“We’ve seen a lot of disaster zones over the years, but this is a whole different level of devastation. Everything has been burned to the ground, and there are so many people still missing,” said Polizer, who has just returned from California.

“The search and rescue teams aren’t looking for survivors, they are looking for remains. From a psychological perspective it’s on a whole different scale.

“When we talk to local people we see they are getting support, but there’s very little psycho-social support there. That’s where we are planning to focus our efforts.”

IsraAID’s team will include Israeli and US-based mental health specialists, who will work with partner organizations on-the-ground to support affected communities as they recover and promote community resilience.

“We were devastated by the tragedy of these fires in California,” said Polizer. “It’s a place very close to our hearts. We have an office there, lots of staff members and volunteers. A lot of local people asked that we come and help. We are planning to be there to support the people as long as we are needed.”

This is not the first time that IsraAID has sent aid in the wake of deadly fires in California. In October last year, a team of seven aid workers – including Polizer – helped out in evacuation centers in Napa Valley, after a series of wildfires swept the state killing 44, causing $14.5 billion in damages, and forcing 90,000 people to evacuate.

The Israeli team were stationed in Santa Rosa, California, and helped coordinate and provide relief supplies and stress management to the affected community.

Even today, IsraAID continues to work with the community there to help them build resilience.

Helping out at an evacuation center in Santa Rosa, California in 2017. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

IsraAID has extensive experience responding to disasters in the US and all over the world. This year alone, the organization provided aid to victims in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence, to the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Kenya, and to Guatemala after the volcano.

Telling People What They Don’t Know

Despite five years of ‘on the job training,’ nothing could have prepared Christian Broadcasting Network director Erin Zimmerman for her latest project.

By: Noa Amouyal; Jerusalem Post –

"To Life", Israeli documentary by Erin Zimmerman, June 19, 2018.
“To Life”, Israeli documentary by Erin Zimmerman, June 19, 2018. . (photo credit: Courtesy)

Two years ago, Erin Zimmerman found herself far from home in war-torn Kurdistan hearing a harrowing story of how innocent people were subjected to the worst kind of evil.

It was there that Zimmerman heard a Kurdish man recount his experience saving kidnapped women who were held captive by ISIS.

“I just heard terrible stories,” Zimmerman recalled. “When I sat down and interviewed Abdullah he told us stories that were so bad, my translator had to leave to take a cigarette break.”

Poster for the documentary film 'To Life' (Courtesy)
Poster for the documentary film ‘To Life’ (Courtesy)

Those stories and more were featured in her latest documentary for the Christian Broadcasting Network: To Life, How Israeli Volunteers are Changing the World. Released in time for Israeli’s 70th Independence Day last May, the film showcases five of the country’s organizations that are helping repair the world.

While each organization helps people in distress, not all stories were as somber and disturbing as the ones she heard in Kurdistan – the story of IsraAID, for example, is inspirational and shows how good can triumph over evil.  Off the shores of Lesbos, Greece, IsraAID volunteers healed and cared for not only strangers – but people who would be considered an enemy under any other circumstances.

That’s because the volunteers were Israeli – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – who were all united in one singular mission: to be a light unto the nations and lead by example.

“The doctors were almost all female. They got along so well and did way more than what was expected of them. If you see these girls, they were taking time to hug and comfort people,” Zimmerman said. “One of the doctors told me, ‘70 years ago, this was us. We were on a boat trying to come home and nobody would help us. So it’s our responsibility to help others.’”

Whether it be a beleaguered refugee in Greece or a Palestinian child in need of a heart transplant, the lives of the people being helped are forever transformed. For Zimmerman, it caused some introspection on her part as well.

“It shines a light on your life. [Filming the movie] made me stop and say, ‘Wow. This is pure love,’” she marveled. “If you are an Israeli, you’re technically at war with Syria and they are the enemy.”

However, the tenacity, courage and kindness of the volunteers allowed them overlook that and see these people for who they were: scared humans in desperate need for help.

Rather than focusing on an Israel engulfed in conflict, To Life tells the untold story of Israel as the beacon of innovation and humanitarian aid. It is a story not often told in the press today.

“There is not so much positive press about Israel. My boss [CBN CEO Gordon Robertson] and I have similar ideas but a different motivation. He’s very focused on combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, but my thought process isn’t that intricate. It’s more, ‘This is a great story, let’s tell it.’”

“I was really impressed by the people I met and captured on camera. It made me feel really small, i saw these great things but then I went home to comfort at night,” she said. “I met so many millennials doing amazing things and nobody told them to.”

Although Zimmerman was at the helm of three other CBN movies prior to this one, her career in directing is a rather recent one. After spending 20 years in television production, Robertson encouraged her to try her hand at directing CBN’s first movie, Made in Israel. That film, which was made for television, was so well-received that requests were made for it to be available on DVD.
Now Zimmerman directs roughly one movie every two years for the network. However, she still feels that she has much to learn and often relies on other members of the crew to steer her in the right direction.

“I’ve had a lot of on-the-job training. I’ve done a lot of reading on the Internet, learned from coworkers and my excellent production company here in Israel. If you want to succeed, hire people smarter than you,” she joked.

“I always like to tell people what they don’t know,” Zimmerman said of her film making philosophy. “With To Life, you see Israelis doing amazing work. We’ve tried to figure out why and ask questions why they do it and we get these wonderful answers. ‘We’re supposed to be.’ Or ‘God made us this way.’ From secular and religious alike, it’s amazing to hear.”


EpiPen — Inventor’s Correct and Godly Attitude

By Kevin Smetana, Times Staff Writer
This obituary appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday, September 24, 2009

He led a normal, middle-class lifestyle. With a home in the suburbs and two modest cars in the garage, it’s not what you might expect from a man who had a hand in inventing a product bought by millions.

For Sheldon Kaplan, that was just fine.

Mr. Kaplan was one of the inventors of the EpiPen, an autoinjector that contains epinephrine, which is used to treat anaphylaxis. Basically, it’s a handheld device that saves people who are prone to fatal allergens.

Millions of EpiPen prescriptions have been filled over the years, according to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. As an employee of the company that originally manufactured it, Mr. Kaplan never received royalties and few people connected the dots between him and the device.

“He was not famous; he was not wealthy,” said his son, Michael Kaplan, 35. “And I don’t think he would’ve liked to be. I don’t think he expected that.”

Experts praise the EpiPen, calling it a life-saving invention. It’s used in emergency situations and owned by those who are allergic to certain foods, like peanuts and eggs, or to bees and wasps.

The possibility of inadvertently coming into contact with an allergen is a dangerous reality for those at risk. Carrying an EpiPen makes some feel at ease, said Dr. Richard Lockey, an allergist and professor of medicine at the University of South Florida.

“They feel much more secure going out into the world and doing normal things as long as they have their epinephrine with them,” he said. “It improves the quality of life immensely for these patients.”

• • •

Mr. Kaplan landed a job as an engineer at NASA after graduating from Northeastern University in 1962. A few years later, he started working at Survival Technology in Bethesda, Md., where he would revolutionize the autoinjector.

He invented the ComboPen, a device that treated nerve-agent poisonings and was used in the military, his family said. He later manipulated the contraption to hold epinephrine, and the EpiPen was born.

Although the EpiPen went on to become a household name after its creation in the mid-1970s, Mr. Kaplan did not. His family says he was the lead engineer and inventor on the project. His name, along with three others, is on the patent. But he never owned it.

He was simply an employee who made a salary and followed orders.

“I don’t think that diminished the fact that he felt he had a legacy, that he made a difference,” Michael Kaplan said. “My dad was an extremely talented engineer, an analytical guy who delighted in solving technical issues.”

Just before the EpiPen hit the market, Mr. Kaplan left the company and moved on as a biomechanical engineer, developing medical equipment. He didn’t follow closely the EpiPen’s success.

“My husband was always looking for a new challenge, and he tended not to look backward,” said his wife, Sheila Kaplan, 64.

• • •

Last month [August 2009], Mr. Kaplan found out he had Hepatocellular carcinoma, a cancer of the liver. Not knowing it would be his last trip to see his dad, Michael Kaplan traveled from Iowa to visit his father in Clearwater, Florida, where the senior Mr. Kaplan lived since 2000.

Sheldon Kaplan’s illness quickly worsened, and on Monday [Sept. 21, 2009], he died at his home. He was 70. Before Sheldon Kaplan passed away, his son shared a story with him. The EpiPen had saved a close friend’s life, Michael told his father. And in the 1980s, it did the same for his mother-in-law, the son explained.

From the start of his career, Sheldon’s wife of 39 years said, he sought to help mankind.

“He achieved his life goal,” Sheila Kaplan said. “I don’t think many of us can say that, and I’m extremely proud of him.”

From Kaplan’s 2009 obituary
Sheldon Kaplan
Born: June 6, 1939.

Died: Sept. 21, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Sheila (Potts) Kaplan; son, Michael Kaplan and wife, Bethany; sister, Phyllis Goldenberg; nieces and nephews.

Corruption at World Vision in Gaza

By Daniella Cheslow

A sign shows the direction to the World Vision offices in Jerusalem.
A sign shows the direction to the World Vision offices in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM (AP) — The international charity World Vision said on Monday (August 8, 2016) that Israel has accused the charity’s Gaza Strip director of funneling what appears to be an impossible sum of money to Hamas.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said Mohammed el-Halabi siphoned about $7.2 million a year to the Islamic militant group over a period of five years. The security agency said this is roughly 60 percent of World Vision’s total Gaza budget.

World Vision Germany spokeswoman Silvia Holten said the charity’s budget in Gaza in the last decade totaled $22.5 million. She said World Vision has stopped its Gaza operations while investigations continue. Germany and Australia suspended donations to World Vision in Gaza amid the allegations.

“There is a huge gap in these numbers the Israeli government is telling and what we know,” Holten said.

Israel indicted el-Halabi last Thursday.

According to the Shin Bet, el-Halabi crafted an elaborate scheme to funnel funds, food, medical supplies and agricultural equipment to Hamas. He fraudulently listed the children of Hamas operatives as wounded, created straw organizations, and inflated project costs to divert cash, the agency said. Building supplies intended to support farming projects were transferred to Hamas for constructing tunnels and military installations, according to the Shin Bet.

The allegations, if proven correct, would bolster Israel’s arguments for maintaining its blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas seized power in the coastal strip in 2007. Israel says the closure is vital to preventing Hamas from importing weapons and materials used to attack Israel.

Robert Piper, the U.N. coordinator for aid in the Palestinian territories, said Monday that the allegations against el-Halabi “raise serious concerns” for aid groups in Gaza, and that, if proven true, “deserve unreserved condemnation.” He called for a fair and transparent trial.

Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of Israeli legal advocacy group Shurat Hadin, said her organization warned World Vision four years ago its funding was being diverted to armed militant groups in Gaza. She said she discovered this while her group researched a lawsuit against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which in the past was involved in attacking Israelis. She said the PFLP used front organizations that appeared as beneficiaries on the World Vision website. Darshan-Leitner said she is exploring suing World Vision in the United States for aiding and abetting terrorism.

“Foreign NGOs want to give money to Gaza,” Darshan-Leitner said, even as they “ignore all the signs that their money is diverted to terrorism.”

World Vision did not immediately respond to the charge.

The U.S. also funded humanitarian projects run by World Vision through 2011, which overlaps with el-Halabi’s time as Gaza director. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it is closely following the Israeli investigation. If confirmed, Hamas’s embezzlement of aid funds would be “reprehensible,” according to the statement.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon speculated that World Vision’s budget does not include in-kind donations like food.

“They are trying to belittle their role and to show they are much smaller than they really are,” Nahshon said of World Vision. He did not provide proof of his claim, but said el-Halabi’s legal team will have access to the evidence. He added that el-Halabi confessed to his crimes, but el-Halabi’s lawyer Mohammed Mahmoud said his client did not confess.

Holten said the World Vision budget includes all in-kind donations, but she did not provide a detailed report of the organization’s spending in Gaza in recent years. She said World Vision performs stringent internal audits and commissions external audits from outside companies as well.

El-Halabi’s father has denied he is a member of Hamas. A spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, Hazem Qasem, has called the allegations “lies.”

Granted a New Life by the Pope

“Muslim governments should be ashamed. Instead of helping refugees, they close borders and stop visas.” –Nour Essa, saying that no Muslim leader has made the gesture the pope made.

By Tom Kington /

Refugees Nour Essa, husband Hasan Zaheda and son Riad are among the 12 Syrians plucked from a Greek camp by Pope Francis and placed with the charity Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
Refugees Nour Essa, husband Hasan Zaheda and son Riad are among the 12 Syrians plucked from a Greek camp by Pope Francis and placed with the charity Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

On a warm evening in Rome, as waiters flapped tablecloths for outdoor diners at a trattoria down the cobbled alley, Ramy Al Shakarji leaned back on a bench and laughed as he described how the head of the Roman Catholic Church, plucked him, a Muslim, from a squalid refugee camp in Greece and flew him to a new life.

“When we were given the chance to come to Rome, my wife and I took about three minutes to decide ‘yes,'” he recalls.

That was about all the time they had. It was 9 p.m. on April 15, a night before Pope Francis visited their refugee camp on the island of Lesbos.

Making the offer to move to Italy was Daniela Pompei, an official with Catholic charity Sant’Egidio, which was asked by the Vatican at the last minute to find families and then host them back in Rome at its refugee shelter in the bustling Trastevere neighborhood.

“I got to Lesbos three days before the pope and it was all done in a rush,” Pompei said.

Al Shakarji, 51, stopped laughing as he described the moment Francis greeted him before the flight. “I felt security and peace — a man like this is a father to the world,” he said.

The trip to Rome was the end of a long journey that started in Dair Alzour, a Syrian town under siege by Islamic State, where Al Shakarji recalls a rebellious neighbor’s decapitated head hanging from a balcony for three days.

“Don’t go to Syria,” he said grimly, drawing a finger slowly across his neck.

In March of last year, Al Shakarji decided to risk fleeing down mined roads and past snipers to reach Turkey, taking his wife and three children with him. Between Islamic State and the government of President Bashar Assad, he saw little hope for his family in Syria.

“My two sons were approaching the age for military service and to stop them becoming assassins, for either Assad or ISIS, we had to go,” he said.

Now, he says his oldest son plans on training as a dentist. But first, Sant’Egidio is organizing Italian lessons for the families in Trastevere.

Another of the Syrians brought to Rome with Francis is Nour Essa. Sitting outside a classroom at Trastevere, Essa clutched an Italian grammar book and tried out a hesitant “Come stai?” — “How are you?” — on an African refugee in her class.

Essa’s family history is a refugee tale that spans the 20th and 21st centuries. Her grandfather was a Palestinian who fled the new state of Israel in 1948 and settled in Syria.

“The difference is there were two sides in 1948, whereas in Syria you can’t understand how many sides there are,” said Essa, 30.

Essa had escaped some of the initial turmoil of Syria’s civil war. She was living in Montpellier, France, while studying for a master’s in microbiology, before returning to her job in 2013 at Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.

She then married and had a child, but the war was creeping into her Damascus suburb. “We lived between checkpoints loyal to Assad and the Free Syrian Army and in 2015 we could smell the sulfur from chemical weapon attacks,” she said.

Then her husband’s draft papers arrived. The couple fled, starting a terrifying, 10-day journey across ISIS-held territory in an ambulance and then in a cattle truck.

Stopping in Aleppo, her husband was ordered to fight by ISIS fighters — “real monsters,” said Essa. But a smuggler guided them through minefields toward Turkey, where after waiting out rough seas and numerous tangles with Turkish police, they made it to Lesbos on March 18, packed into a dinghy at night with 50 other refugees.

“We had heard the borders were closing and had to hurry,” she said.

Their rush paid off. The family made it to Lesbos just two days before a March 20 deadline set by the European Union, beyond which new arrivals in Greece were to be sent back to Turkey unless they claimed asylum in Greece.

Crucially, when selecting families to fly to Rome, Sant’Egidio took only those who arrived before the cutoff.

“I was shocked when we were asked if we wanted to go,” Essa said. “We shook the pope’s hand when we were on the plane and he caressed my 2-year-old son’s head.”

Addressing journalists on the flight back to Rome, Francis discussed the 12 Syrians on board, saying, “It will be the duty of the Vatican, in collaboration with the Sant’Egidio Community, to find them work, if possible, or to maintain them. They are guests of the Vatican.”

He added, “I did not make a choice between Christians and Muslims. These three families had their documents in order.” Then, quoting Mother Teresa, he said, “It’s a drop, it’s a drop of water in the sea, but after that drop, the sea will never be the same.”

Landing at 4:30 p.m. in Rome, the Syrians did not leave the airport until nearly four hours later after completing paperwork, the start of a process that should lead to them receiving asylum status in Italy.

Now, Essa is torn between trying to reach France, settling in Italy or one day returning to Syria, from where her mother is sending her WhatsApp messages daily.

What she is sure about is that no Muslim leader has made the gesture the pope did. “Muslim governments should be ashamed,” she said. “Instead of helping refugees, they close borders and stop visas for Syrians. If you want to work in Saudi Arabia, you cannot get a visa now.”

For Al Shakarji and his family, it appears Italy will be their new home. As the light faded in the courtyard outside the Sant’Egidio building, Al Shakarji’s 7-year-old daughter climbed onto his lap to say “ciao,” her first word in Italian.

“I will stay here in Italy and live like an Italian,” said Al Shakarji, adding with a laugh, “I am loving this lasagna.”

But he stopped laughing to add, “What I will not stop thinking about are the thousands of people still surrounded by ISIS in my hometown.”

Israel aids Paraguayans displaced by the worst flooding in 50 years

In early January, Israel began donating food and assistance kits to help Paraguayans displaced by massive flooding in the region, the worst in half a century.

“The State of Israel is sympathetic to our sister nation of Paraguay in this difficult moment when thousands of citizens have been forced to leave their homes behind,” the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion said. “We are ready to support the government to provide humanitarian aid.”

Some 100,000 Paraguayans were displaced by the flooding caused by torrential rain that was triggered by the El Nino weather phenomenon and started falling in the region on Dec. 18. Some rivers reached a height of 32 feet and burst flood walls.

The flooding had a stronger impact on residents of low-lying slums, who sought shelter in camps on higher ground and ended up sleeping in improvised tents.

Another 50,000 people also were stricken by floods in bordering areas in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, but Paraguay was the most-affected nation.

Israel reopened its Paraguay embassy in July after it was closed in 2002 due to financial constraints. The countries have strong ties in the fields of anti-terrorism, trade, and agriculture.

Paraguay is home to a Jewish community of about 1,000.

“It can be done”: Recalling the Rosh Hashanah 1943 Holocaust Escape of Danish Jews

By Rafael Medoff /

As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi roundup.

“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. His family “strode straight into the ocean and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and covered themselves “with smelly canvases.” Shivering and frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found itself in the safety and freedom of neighboring Sweden.

For years, the Allied leaders had insisted that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. But in one extraordinary night, 72 years ago this month, the Danish people exploded that myth and changed history.

When the Nazis occupied Denmark during the Holocaust in 1940, the Danes put up little resistance. As a result, the German authorities agreed to let the Danish government continue functioning with greater autonomy than other occupied countries. They also postponed taking steps against Denmark’s 8,000 Jewish citizens.

In the late summer of 1943, amid rising tensions between the occupation regime and the Danish government, the Nazis declared martial law and decided the time had come to deport Danish Jews to the death camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Denmark, leaked the information to Danish friends. Duckwitz was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. As word of the Germans’ plans spread, the Danish public responded with a spontaneous nationwide grassroots effort to help the Jews.

This cartoon by Arie Navon appeared in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Davar on Oct. 13, 1943. Navon contrasted the rescue of Denmark's Jews with the farcical refugee conference that the Allies staged earlier that year in Bermuda. The title of the cartoon is a Hebrew word that means both “lifeguards” and “rescuers.” The lifeguards, one smoking a Churchill-style cigar and wearing a Union Flag swimsuit, and the other wearing Roosevelt-style glasses and a Stars-and-Stripes swimsuit, are standing next to an unused life preserver labeled “Bermuda.” The scrawny man diving into the swastika-infested ocean to rescue a drowning person is labeled “Sweden.”  Credit: From the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” by Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe.
This cartoon by Arie Navon appeared in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Davar on Oct. 13, 1943. Navon contrasted the rescue of Denmark’s Jews with the farcical refugee conference that the Allies staged earlier that year in Bermuda. The title of the cartoon is a Hebrew word that means both “lifeguards” and “rescuers.” The lifeguards, one smoking a Churchill-style cigar and wearing a Union Flag swimsuit, and the other wearing Roosevelt-style glasses and a Stars-and-Stripes swimsuit, are standing next to an unused life preserver labeled “Bermuda.” The scrawny man diving into the swastika-infested ocean to rescue a drowning person is labeled “Sweden.” Credit: From the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” by Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe.

The Danes’ remarkable response gave rise to the legend that King Christian X himself rode through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, wearing a yellow Star of David, and that the citizens of the city likewise donned the star in solidarity with the Jews.

The story may have had its origins in a political cartoon that appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1942. It showed King Christian pointing to a Star of David and declaring that if the Nazis imposed it upon the Jews of Demark, “then we must all wear the star.” Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, and the movie based on that book, helped spread the legend. But subsequent investigations by historians have concluded that the story is a myth.

A midnight escape

On Rosh Hashanah—which fell on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in 1943—and the days that followed, numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews from Holocaust persecution in their homes or farms, and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighboring Sweden. This three-week operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. More than 7,000 Danish Jews reached Sweden and were sheltered there until the end of the war.

Esther Finkler, a young newlywed, was hidden, together with her husband and their mothers, in a greenhouse. “At night, we saw the [German] searchlights sweeping back and forth throughout the neighborhood,” as the Nazis hunted for Jews, Esther later recalled. One evening, a member of the Danish Underground arrived and drove the four “through streets saturated with Nazi stormtroopers,” to a point near the shore.

There they hid in an underground shelter, and then in the attic of a bakery, until finally they were brought to a beach, where they boarded a small fishing vessel together with other Jewish refugees. “There were nine of us, lying down on the deck or the floor,” Esther said. “The captain covered us with fishing nets. When everyone had been properly concealed, the fishermen started the boat, and as the motor started to run, so did my pent-up tears.”

Then, suddenly, trouble. “The captain began to sing and whistle nonchalantly, which puzzled us. Soon we heard him shouting in German toward a passing Nazi patrol boat: ‘Wollen sie einen beer haben?’ (Would you like a beer?)—a clever gimmick designed to avoid the Germans’ suspicions. After three tense hours at sea, we heard shouting: ‘Get up! Get up! And welcome to Sweden!’ It was hard to believe, but we were now safe. We cried and the Swedes cried with us as they escorted as ashore. The nightmare was over,” Esther recalled.

‘It can be done’

The implications of the Danish rescue operation resonated strongly in the United States. The Roosevelt administration had long insisted that rescue of Jews from the Nazis was not possible. The refugee advocates known as the Bergson Group began citing the escape of Denmark’s Jews as evidence that if the Allies were sufficiently interested, ways could be found to save many European Jews.

The Bergson Group sponsored a series of full-page newspaper advertisements about the Danish-Swedish effort, headlined “It Can Be Done!” On Oct. 31, thousands of New Yorkers jammed Carnegie Hall for the Bergson Group’s “Salute to Sweden and Denmark” rally.

Keynote speakers included members of Congress, Danish and Swedish diplomats, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood—Orson Welles, director of “Citizen Kane” and “The War of the Worlds.” In another coup for the Bergson Group, one of the speakers was Leon Henderson, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own former economic advisers (Henderson had headed the White House’s Office of Price Administration).

In blunt language that summed up the tragedy—and the hope—Henderson declared: “The Allied Governments have been guilty of moral cowardice. The issue of saving the Jewish people of Europe has been avoided, submerged, played down, hushed up, resisted with all the forms of political force that are available… Sweden and Denmark have proved the tragedy of Allied indecision… The Danes and Swedes have shown us the way… If this be a war for civilization, then most surely this is the time to be civilized!”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

Sole Israeli national on downed airliner in Ukraine was son of Christian evangelist

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Ithamar Avnon, the sole Israeli national aboard the downed Flight 17, pictured in Jerusalem in 2008. (Shai Penn Eisenman)
Ithamar Avnon, the sole Israeli national aboard the downed Flight 17, pictured in Jerusalem in 2008. (Shai Penn Eisenman)

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — A few hours before he departed Amsterdam for Australia on July 17, Ithamar Avnon was praying for peace with his parents at their home in the Netherlands.

That evening, pro-Russian separatists shot down Avnon’s flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Avnon, 26, was the sole Israeli national on board.

The son of a Dutchwoman and an Israeli who became a Christian evangelist, Avnon loved peace because of how well he and his family knew war.

His father, Dov, served for three years in the Israel Defense Forces before moving to the Netherlands in the 1970s. His older brother, Jonathan, was an Israeli paratrooper. Following his brother’s lead, Avnon voluntarily joined the paratroopers and fought with that unit in the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza.

Friends and family say that Avnon, who was born in the Netherlands in 1988, was a fun-loving man with a penchant for buffoonery who was looking forward to completing his international business degree at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Ithamar liked horsing around, he wasn’t a stern guy,” his mother, Jeannet, told JTA. “I never thought Ithamar would join the army, but he was inspired to do it by his brother. Ithamar completed the training and got that red beret.”

One of his former commanders, Shlomi Biton, said Avnon — Ito, to his friends — was a forgetful soldier who would often lose pieces of gear, including that red beret, just moments after receiving it. Avnon got away with it because of how well-liked he was by his peers and commanders.

“I really loved Ithamar,” Biton wrote on a Facebook page in Avnon’s memory. “I wanted to be the one to give Ithamar the beret — and then another one after he lost the first one, which was typical.”

Dov Avnon moved to Holland after meeting Dutch Christians in Eilat in the 1970s. Even as an ex-Israeli Christian living in Holland, Dov Avnon and his wife raised their children with a love of the Jewish state.

Dov Avnon
Dov Avnon

After Avnon’s death, Dov wrote on Facebook: “I am happy that he grew up with the bible and the faith that Christ died for him on the cross.”

Avnon had been in the Netherlands to attend the wedding of his sister, Ruth, who learned of the flight’s demise on the radio.

“I knew immediately that it was my little brother’s flight and it felt as though I was sinking and the world around me was falling apart,” Ruth Avnon said.

In their home near Utrecht, Avnon’s parents were waiting last week for a Dutch forensics team to finish identifying the remains of the dead in the hope of recovering their son’s body.

Though the final remains found at the crash site arrived in Holland last week, the search is ongoing. Full identification of the victims could take months and it’s not yet clear whether all the bodies have been recovered. Dov has little hope of recovering his son’s remains, since he was sitting close to the engine.

“It’s a strange sort of mourning because we have no body,” Jeannet said. “I’m afraid that when and if a body is recovered, we would need to mourn all over again.”

Avnon had a knack for comedy and impersonations and had a face he would make by puckering his lips. “We called it the Berrie face,” Jeannet said.

His thespian skills also helped him at work, according to Nata Sapuga, Avnon’s former boss at a recycling company. During a business trip to India, Avnon got an upset stomach and had to run to the bathroom every few minutes while working at a business fair.

“He would tell visitors to his booth, ‘Excuse me, sir, but i just figured out that I need to exchange a few urgent words with my biggest buyer, who just passed by,’” Spuga recalled.

Holland lost 194 of its citizens on board MH17, prompting the government to declare a day of mourning — the first in a century. The national outpouring of grief has provided some consolation to Avnon’s parents.

“We are consoled by the feeling of a community, by the respect the Netherlands is showing to all victims,” Jeannet said. “It dulls the pain, as did the powerful speech of our foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, at the United Nations.”

In that speech, Timmermans condemned pro-Russian separatists for delaying access to the bodies and urged delegates to imagine they were parents of the victims “and then two or three days later see some thug steal their wedding ring from their remains.”

Western leaders also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of supplying the separatists with the weapons used to bring down the plane and for failing to expedite the return of the bodies. Dov Avnon wrote Putin a scathing letter, accusing him of harboring “people who have lost all humanity.”

On Wednesday, Dov was at the ceremony in Eindhoven Airport, where the first bodies were returned. Organizers had placed a flag for every nation that lost civilians in the crash, including Israel.

“I know that flag is especially for Ithamar,” Dov Avnon said. “I am proud to be an Israeli and a Dutch citizen and grateful for this treatment.”

You can help! — Israeli Soldiers Ask For Repeat Of Christian Blessing


Ariel Schneider /

This morning (Friday), I received a call from my friend and former military comrade from the South, who inquired after pizzas and colas for the tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers operating in and around the Gaza Strip.

Two years ago, when Israeli troops massed on the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Israel Today was on the ground handing out pizzas and cola generously donated by our readers. The soldiers down in Gaza now remember that kindness, and our friend in the area has received several calls from officers and their troops wondering if they will again be blessed in this way.

There is a long-standing tradition in Israel whereby people will often go and buy cold drinks and snacks for the soldiers manning hot, dusty checkpoints. The gesture might be small, but the act of kindness has a major impact on these soldiers.

CLICK HERE to bless Israeli soldiers now!

This tradition kicks into high gear during a time of war.

As such, we are inviting our readers and all friends of Israel to repeat their past assistance to Israeli soldiers as they fight to defend our nation.

Both they and we fondly remember how two years ago the pizzas and drinks delivered offered not only physical sustenance, but emotional and even spiritual blessing when they learned it had all come from Christians around the world who love and stand with Israel.

Last, but not least, your participation in this effort greatly blesses the pizzerias in southern Israel where we purchase the pizzas, salads and drinks. As you can imagine, during a time of war they receive little other business.

Doctor works hard to save lives — and Israel

By Denis Hamill /

Dr. Joseph Frager — who performs colonoscopies and other procedures at Montefiore Medical Center — is the chairman of the annual Raoul Wallenberg Heritage Foundation Dinner, pushes back against a boycott of Israeli goods, and helps stage the annual Celebrate Israel Parade and concert.

Dr. Joseph Frager in his office in the Bronx. Frager is as committed to the survival of Israel as he is his patients. Photo/James Keivom, New York Daily News
Dr. Joseph Frager in his office in the Bronx. Frager is as committed to the survival of Israel as he is his patients. Photo/James Keivom, New York Daily News

Dr. Joseph Frager isn’t just dedicated to Israel during the June weekend when New Yorkers gather for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade and concert.

The internist with multiple private practices in the city makes working for Israel’s future as much a part of his life as helping patients.

“Like being a doctor, being a Jew committed to the survival of Israel is not a once-a-year obligation,” says Frager, 59, who performs colonoscopies and other procedures at Montefiore Medical Center and teaches at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“Just as I save lives every day by discovering precancerous polyps, I work daily on the health and preservation of the Jewish state.”

Frager is the chairman of the annual Raoul Wallenberg Heritage Foundation Dinner following the parade on Fifth Ave.

“This annual concert, which is free and open to all, brings together tens of thousands of people in Central Park to listen to Israel’s top musical talent and guest speakers all committed to a strong and safe Israel,” he says.

“We want a broad coalition of politicians committed to the safety of Israel in a time when the nuclear threat of Iran and increasing anti-Semitism loom so large,” he said.

He cites the four recent murders at the Brussels Jewish Museum and the murders at Jewish facilities in Kansas by a Ku Klux Klansman in April as cause for heightened alarm.

A family lights candles at the Jewish Museum, site of a shooting in central Brussels, Belgium. /  Eric Vidal, REUTERS
A family lights candles at the Jewish Museum, site of a shooting in central Brussels, Belgium. / Eric Vidal, REUTERS

“We need to all join together against these barbarisms,” says Frager. “Right after the Boston Marathon bombings last year, I ran the New York Marathon in solidarity to those killed by those terrorists in Boston.”

Frager will also attend the July 9 ceremony in Washington in which Wallenberg will be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

“We raise money for educational projects about Wallenberg,” says Frager.

“We will make sure no one ever forgets the bravery of this Righteous Gentile.” [On November 26, 1963, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, recognized Raoul Wallenberg as Righteous Among the Nations.]

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who was stationed in Hungary during World War II, is credited with saving as many as 100,000 Jews by distributing Swedish certificates of protection to Hungarian Jews.

Frager’s work on behalf of Israel does occasionally come with a personal cost. When artists took the stage at the 2014 Israeli concert, Frager missed his own son’s graduation from St. John’s University Law School.

“I thank God every day that I’m able to juggle family, medicine, and my commitment to Israel,” Frager said. “But sometimes you have to make sacrifices that really hurt.” He’s counting on another son, who is now doing a medical internship, to free him up for his political work by joining him in his medical practice. In August, Frager will travel to Israel to meet with executives of SodaStream, an Israeli company with a factory in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

A SodaStream ad featuring Scarlett Johansson that aired during the Super Bowl made headlines. “What American entertainers calling for a boycott of Israeli products because of alleged human rights violations on the West Bank don’t realize is that SodaStream employs 500 Arabs who could lose their good-paying jobs because of the boycott,” Frager says.

“Scarlett Johansson defended her SodaStream Super Bowl ad by saying that its factory is ‘a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation.’ I applaud her.”