July 24, 2006
LOS ANGELES - Braving a record-setting heat wave, 10,000 Jews of all ages and walks of life, including a sizable presence from Southern California’s Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and supporters, thronged into a half-mile-square area of Los Angeles’ famed Wilshire Boulevard Sunday in an upbeat expression of solidarity with the Jews of Israel.

Police helicopters circled overhead and hundreds of police officers deployed to prevent shouting matches between rally attendees and a group of 100 anti-Israel demonstrators from escalating into fisticuffs, as well as to protect the dignitaries – including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the city’s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Schwarzenegger received an enthusiastic welcome, and returned the favor by striking a chord with his audience. Declaring that he has a “special bond with the Israeli people,” the actor-turned-politician recounted his visits to the Holy Land in each of the last four decades – as a bodybuilder, a film star, a nightclub owner and a state’s chief executive.

"There is nothing Israel wants more than to live in peace," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said “There is nothing Israel wants more than to live in peace,” he said.

“We pray for peace for the people of Israel and for the people of Lebanon,” he added, expressing the shared hope that the latter “can recover their country” from the grip of Hezbollah terrorists.

Schwarzenegger concluded his remarks with a shout of  “Am Yisrael Chai,” correctly pronounced down to the guttural chet.

Villaraigosa, a Democrat, was not to be outdone in Hebrew by the Republican governor. Already respected by the local Jewish community for his relationship with the mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot, on the front lines of Gaza, he reminded listeners of the values he shares with them: transforming the world and charity.

Rabbi Shlomo Cunin addresses the pro-Israel crowd. Photo: Buzzy Gordon
Rabbi Shlomo Cunin addresses the pro-Israel crowd. Photo: Buzzy Gordon

Among the sea of banners, flags and placards carried by the demonstrators, a sign proclaiming Latinos for Israel greeted the Hispanic mayor of a city known for its diversity of population. Christian supporters of Israel were also in attendance.

Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, Lubavitch's elder statesman in Los Angeles, who is known throughout both the Jewish and general community for heading up several charitable programs, including the West Coast Chabad Telethon, gave perhaps the day's most impassioned speech.

“With achdut – unity – we shall overcome,” he exhorted the crowd. “Our enemies simply do not want us to exist. This will never happen!”

"With achdut – unity – we shall overcome our enemies" Cunin urged Jews to contribute money and to “go to Israel” personally. But he asked them also to go to synagogue and pray: men to put on tefillin “for the soldier who no longer can, because he has sacrificed his life” for Israel, and women to light Shabbat candles, symbolizing “the banishment of darkness from the world.”

His call for tefillin and candles echoed activities by Chabad emissaries throughout the United States and Israel in recent days.

Cunin concluded by leading the crowd in the recitation of the Shema and the singing of “Ani Ma’amin,” the words translating to “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach.”

Menachem Mendel Levitansky assists an audience member with tefillin. Photo: Buzzy Gordon
Menachem Mendel Levitansky assists an audience member with tefillin. Photo: Buzzy Gordon
Chabad-Lubavitch representatives likewise circulated throughout the multitude in attendance, handing out stickers proclaiming, “I Did a Mitzvah for Israel.”

Chabad of Los Angeles has been exceptionally active in rallying public support for Israel since the recent crisis began. On July 17, Chabad held a prayer assembly in Rabbi Schneerson Square in Los Angeles that attracted about 1,000 people, including 500 children from local Chabad camps and youth groups.

In addition, the Chabad Houses on the campuses of Los Angeles-area universities called on students to join Sunday’s massive rally.

“We sent out e-mails and made announcements at services,” said Rabbi David Gurevitch, the newly appointed Chabad House director at the University of California at Los Angeles. Indeed, one could spot “Bruins for Israel” T-shirts in the crowd, referring to the UCLA mascot.

Cunin was one of several speakers urging monetary donations in support of the Jewish Federation's emergency “Israel in Crisis Fund.” The Los Angeles federation is raising the funds to pay for psychological counseling for traumatized children, aid to the elderly who cannot get to their usual day centers, specialized training for volunteers and safer summer camps in the center of the country for youngsters from the northern and southern border areas.

Chabad-Lubavitch representatives circulated stickers proclaiming, "I Did a Mitzvah for Israel." Representing the government of Israel at the event was Consul General Ehud Danoch, who vowed, “If the world will not disarm Hezbollah, Israel will!”

As the crowd dispersed after two hours in the unrelenting sun, Lubavitch emissaries streamed to the exit points, asking the men to fulfill their “mitzvah for Israel” by putting on tefillin. Women, meanwhile, were given packets containing Shabbat candles and charity boxes for the home.

Men, women and children alike were given postcards with two coins taped on them, designated as a “mitzvah starter.” The intent was to give them “as charity to unite the globe with acts of kindness.” Recipients will be given the chance to register their mitzvah by mailing or faxing the cards back to Chabad in Los Angeles, entering them in a drawing for a trip to Israel. Online registration will also be available at AskMoses.com. The winner will be announced at the West Coast Chabad Telethon in September.