Support group

Naperville residents stand behind Israel at Chicago rally

By Kathy Millen

  More than 100 people from the Naperville area traveled to Chicago on Sundayto take part in the annual Israel Solidarity Day and The Walk for Israel along the lakefront near McCormick Place.

  Participants, including Rabbi Jeffrey Sultar and about a third of the members of Congregation Beth Shalom, departed on three buses from the parking lot of the Naperville synagogue. They were among an estimated 25,000 people who attended the rally and walk.

  "This one was just huge," said Barbara Bernstein, Congregation Beth Shalom education director and a veteran of about 15 of the previous rallies. "Everywhere you looked there were Israeli flags and there were different sorts of signs. It was absolutely packed."

  This year's event was the largest Jewish rally in Chicago since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948. Last year, about 6,000 people participated in the event.

  The march was preceded by speakers calling for an end to the months of terrorism in Israel. Nearby, a counterdemonstration of about 20 people chanted anti-Israeli slogans as marchers walked four and five abreast along a three-mile loop. After the walk, participants wrote words of support on postcards that were to be mailed to Israel.

  Many came to Sunday's rally because of a renewed sense of urgency and concern about Israel's very survival, Bernstein said.

  "When a country's existence is threatened because of its Jewishness, then we had to show an appreciable amount of people that no, this is not going to happen," she said.

  "Even though we don't live there, we are still supportive and we want to send that message of support to those who live in Israel. I felt a sense of unity that people were there for a specific reason and we are all supportive of Israel's right to be. But this urgency was there. This is such a time of crisis for Israel that I think it urged more people to stand up and be counted."

  The walk drew the support of Christians as well as Jews. Naperville resident George Mamo, chief operating officer for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, was one of the marchers. Mamo, a Christian, recently returned from a trip to Israel.

  "It was apparent to me from talking to Israelis that we needed to give a show of support. It was exciting to see that many people come together focused on one thing and that's the Holy Land," he said.

  "The mood was somewhere between a revival service and the Fourth of July and there were the best political stump speeches you ever heard. You can hear all these different accents around you. All were united with a love for Israel," Mamo said.

  Sheldon Isenberg, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, was unable to participate in this year's rally but walked in four marches in previous years. He said Americans are coming together during this time of crisis in Israel.

  "I think people want to somehow find a way to do their part to support Israel, whether it's a religious or political motivation," Isenberg said. "Everyone wants to do something within their capability of doing. I think the walk was a marvelous way to bring that out and it unites people within their home communities by doing something for the larger community."

  Isenberg said members of the Jewish community, in general, tends to worry about their own safety. Those worries are present in Naperville as well.

  In addition to concerns about the bloodshed in the Middle East, the Naperville Jewish community was galvanized after a recent incident in which a swastika was painted on a residential lawn, Isenberg said.

  "I don't want to exaggerate it at all, but there is a certain undercurrent of anxiety in the community," he said. "I really, really appreciate how ordinary Muslims felt when they were being victimized by the terrorist scare."

  To rally support for Israel on a local level, Isenberg and several other west suburban residents last summer helped launch the West Suburban Friends for Israel. The nonprofit educational organization's goal is to disseminate accurate information about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  Made up of Jews and Christians, the group promotes projects backing its solidarity with Israel, provides educational programming that emphasizes historical accuracy, opens opportunities for dialogue with Christians and Muslims interested in a viable peace effort and disseminates information about local activities and projects that support Israel.

  Several local organizations have endorsed West Suburban Friends for Israel. These include synagogues in DuPage, Will and Kane counties; Jewish service organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the DuPage Jewish Network, the worldwide Organization for Rehabilitation through Training and the Jewish Community Relations Council; and Christian groups International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Bridges for Peace.

  Mamo said there is a growing recognition in the evangelical community that the roots of Christianity go deep into Judaism.

  "To understand our own religion, to understand our own half of the book, if you will, you really have to understand the people of the other half of the book," he said. "That is why so many Christians are supportive of Jewish causes."

  Isenberg said West Suburban Friends for Israel is not a fund-raising organization, but rather is interested in raising awareness and bringing people together on a common ground that recognizes Israel's right to exist, that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must be eliminated and that a just and sustainable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can be found only through dialogue and not through armed conflict.

  "We are building a bona fide Jewish-Christian organization that has durability for the long haul," Isenberg said. "This isn't just about supporting Israel in its time of need. We are not doing hyperbole when we are saying this is about the survival of Israel. It's not just a Jewish issue. It's an American issue."