A Zionist at UC Irvine: An Interview with Activist Dee Sterling
by Jerry Gordon (January 2011)
Dee Sterling is a South African Jewish transplant to Orange County, California. She grew up in her native South Africa as an opponent of apartheid and a confirmed Zionist. She has endeavored to confront Islamic intimidation on one of the most notorious campuses in the US for open Islamic antisemitism, the University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine). Palestinian advocacy groups on campus claim that Israel is an apartheid state, something that Sterling views as truly Orwellian given her own experience.
Sterling began a grass roots effort, to confront the Orange County Jewish Federation which is funding what she called, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” the misguided Olive Tree Initiative through the Federation’s Rose Project. The objective of the Rose Project is to expose Jewish students at UC Irvine to opponents of Israel and the Jewish people by funding trips to the West Bank. The Olive Tree Initiative sent several groups of UC Irvine Jewish, Christian and Muslim students on these missions. The Muslim students were members of the Muslim Student Union (MSU). Some UC Irvine students came back as full converts to the idea that Israel as an occupying apartheid state. The UC Irvine Hillel Chapter promoted the Rose Project as part of the Orange County Jewish Federation funding of the Olive Tree Initiative.
Watch this brief Ha’Emet (“the truth) video on the controversy surrounding the Federation funding of the Olive Tree initiative:
The UC Irvine Hillel aided by the Orange County Jewish Federation engaged in trashing the criticism by Sterling and others of Rose Project - Olive Tree Initiative, even to the extent of allegedly committing fraud by including Hillel student signatures on a petition without their consent. That bizarre behavior by Hillel is unfortunately consistent when it comes to controversial programs like the Olive Tree Initiative on US college campuses. Sterling fortunately has her supporters within the Orange County Jewish community and among the UC Irvine faculty. Like Sterling, they are concerned about the denial of strident Islamic antisemitism by campus Hillel leaders, Jewish students and Jewish Federation leaders.
The MSU chapter at UC Irvine has been perennially engaged in the anti-Israel 'apartheid week' campaigns that in February 2010 culminated in disruption of a speaking engagement by US born Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. That denial of Oren's and our Free speech resulted in the arrest of MSU protesters and suspension of the MSU chapter from the UC Irvine student activities program. Those actions were easily evaded as Muslim students were able to continue their hate mongering under new guises.
The MSU at UC Irvine also hosted former UK Parliamentarian George Galloway in a patent attempt at raising funds for Hamas via the Viva Palestina project objected to by California Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman as revealed in an investigative report by the NER and the Florida Security Council.
The most recent flashpoint was the appearance of George Rishmawi, co-founder of the virulently anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement (ISM) on the UC Irvine campus November 22, 2010 at an event sponsored by the Olive Tree Initiative. Rishmawi had met with Olive Tree Initiative student tour groups for the past two years.
Phyllis Chesler in a Pajamas media article delineated these concerns about Hillel college campus chapters and mainstream Jewish organizations that have driven local grass roots activists like Sterling and others in Orange County to bring these travesties to the attention of the local Jewish community.
What are all the large American Jewish organizations (the ADL, the AJCommittee, the UJA immediately come to mind) doing about the campus situation? Why is the very liberal Hillel in sole charge of the Jews on campus? (At least, that's how Hillel sees it). Why is this problem only being dealt with by brave, independent, Jewish grassroots groups with 1/100th, maybe 1/1000th of their funding?
According to Rabbi Jon Hausman, the liberal Jewish '614th Commandment' of Tikkun Olam social action has probably made the current generation of American Jewish youths on college campus vulnerable to intimidation by antisemitic Muslim Brotherhood campus chapters like the MSU at UC Irvine. Jewish community and campus groups live in fearful ignorance of learning about the implacable Muslim hatred of Jews. That is the irony behind the Orange County OTI kerfuffle. As activist Sterling has correctly said, it is "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing."
Jerry Gordon: Dee Sterling thank you for consenting to this timely interview.
Dee Sterling: Thank you for inviting me.
Gordon: What was different as a Jewish person growing up in South Africa as distinct from what you have found to be the case here in the U.S.?
Sterling: Well I found that in South Africa that it was pretty much a given in the communities that I grew up in that most people were Jewish and Zionistic in their love of Israel and therefore you were pretty much committed to that. I was growing up in the time of the apartheid movement. Most Jews that I knew at that time were very involved in fighting the apartheid system and seeing it as an immoral system. We wanted to be involved in opposing that system. As a university student I was involved in opposing the apartheid system.
Gordon: When did you come to the U.S.?
Sterling: I came here in the 1980’s, so I’ve been here in California for a long time. However, I have traveled back and forth to South Africa.
Gordon: What has been your experience as a member of Jewish organizations in Orange County and how did you get involved with UC Irvine?
Sterling: Well I was approached to become a board member of Hillel mostly because I’ve been involved with Jewish students. I’ve raised four of them myself and they asked me to serve on the board of Hillel at UC Irvine. My interests were Jewish life on the campus. The subject of anti-Semitism on campus hadn’t come up until I began to read more about it. When it did, I raised questions about it with the board. I was basically told to focus on good things like Shabbos dinners which I did. So I was involved in helping raise money for poker events or doing Friday night dinners for the students which I thought at the time was a good endeavor. However, I started to ask more questions about what was going on the campus. I was told to focus on the iFest celebrating Israel. I questioned about Apartheid Week because I heard that their speakers were anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Again, it was suggested that I not focus on that. I needed answers and since I didn’t think of it as so much of a problem I decided to attend one night. I heard that Malik Ali was speaking on the campus and he was going to talk about Israel as an apartheid state. Given my South African background, I couldn’t really understand Israel being equated with an apartheid state. I have been to Israel and I had grown up in apartheid South Africa and didn’t understand the comparison. So, I went alone one night to the campus to hear Amir Abdul Malik Ali of the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel group As-Sabiqun speak not thinking that there could be any problem. [Watch this You Tube video of Malik Ali speaking at a U.C. Irvine MSU Israel Apartheid Week event in May, 2010 stating “You Jews are the new Nazis.”]
Gordon: What did you confront when you went to this Malik Ali event and who sponsored it on the UC Irvine Campus?
Sterling: This event was sponsored by the Muslim Student Union (MSU). I was expecting there were going to be people from the general community in attendance as curious as myself about what was being said. Given what I heard, I thought I had left the United States of America and was in Saudi Arabia. The bottom line was Malik Ali’s talk was very disturbing to me because he said that there was only a one state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. It was clear from his remarks who was going to control the one state. I left and went back to my car which was in the underground parking lot just outside the UC Irvine facility.
Gordon: What happened when you went to your vehicle?
Sterling: The event was over but people were milling around so I was alone in the parking lot. I noticed a young girl with her back up against her car surrounded by some Muslim men and she had a phone in her hand. I had seen her earlier at the event because she was filming it. I merely said to her, “Are you o.k.?” She said she had called the campus police and just then the police arrived. I approached one of the officers to give him one of my business cards and let them know that I had witnessed what happened. The campus police were extremely curt with me. They didn’t want to take a statement. When I walked towards my car I noticed that one of the Muslim men was on the hood of my vehicle lifting up the windscreen wipers looking for the VIN number to try and identify who I was. As I approached the car he started flashing a camera in my face so I walked back to the police and asked them for help. Again they were very curt. I was becoming more and more fearful in this situation because I didn’t feel I had the support or help of the campus police.
Gordon: When did that event occur?
Sterling: This was two years ago in May, 2008.
Gordon: So what did you do after this incident on the UC Irvine campus?
Sterling: When I got home I called the Irvine police and asked them if it was the protocol to not take witness statements. They said “not at all” and they patched me into the campus police. When they came online they said to me, “ma’am, were you the lady in the parking lot?" I told them, “yes.” They told me that what I saw was a Jewish girl and that she was the instigator of the problem and that was basically not what I had witnessed. This incident completely and utterly changed my life.
Gordon: What was your immediate reaction following this occurrence?
Sterling: Well to be honest with you, I was actually intimidated. It took me some time to compose myself. Then I started talking to people involved with Jewish programs on campus. I didn’t get the response that I had hoped for. People didn’t seem terribly shocked. I was really taken aback by that.
Gordon: With whom were you discussing this matter?
Sterling: I had spoken to leaders in different Jewish communal organizations. I just didn’t find that they came forward to do anything about the situation on the UC Irvine campus.
Gordon: What was the next event in which you experienced Muslim intimidation at UC Irvine?
Sterling: In May 2009, former U.K. MP George Galloway came to speak on the campus. By this time, I had lost my initial fear and went to antisemitic events on campus. I felt it was important for the community, not just the Jewish community, but for all people to witness and see what was going on. I thought that people would take an interest in what was going on. If they had gone to these events and had seen what was going on in the campus it might deeply affect them as it had me and might galvanize more people to do something. I became more and more concerned that just the same individuals attended these events. However, I never saw members of the Jewish Federation nor did I see Hillel students there. I felt that people needed to be there to understand what was happening. When George Galloway came to the UC Irvine campus, he was clearly raising money for Viva Palestina to ultimately be sent to Hamas in Gaza. I had called people and asked them to come on the campus. Many of us actually witnessed the fundraising event that night including Tom Trento of the Florida Security Council who filmed it. We had a dinner with Tom Trento that night. I took seriously his observations because we witnessed what George Galloway said. I was stunned that Hillel and Jewish communal organizations were not as deeply affected as those of us who were at the event.
Gordon: So members of the Orange County Jewish establishment were not active participants in these events or even monitoring them?
Sterling: Yes. That appalled me they were unconcerned. I was equally disturbed by that as well as what I had seen in the parking lot the previous year. The shock of recognition was that Jewish organizations didn’t do anything about these events. Then after the Galloway episode we had the incident with Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren in February of last year.
What occurred with Ambassador Oren was a diplomatic incident. We had an Israeli Ambassador scorned and muzzled by the MSU on the UC Irvine campus. The Jewish community was involved as the Federation bussed in people from Laguna Woods to the campus event. The community was shocked about what happened to Ambassador Oren. However, there were a handful of us who were not shocked about what happened. We thought it was unfortunately simply par for the course at UC Irvine.
Gordon: In the wake of the MSU students’ disruption of Ambassador Oren’s talk, several of them were arrested and the MSU Chapter was suspended by the University. How did the MSU evade the university suspension?
Sterling: The suspension of the MSU chapter was supposed to be for a year. It was actually taken down in December 2010. It effectively lasted less than six months. The MSU essentially circumvented the suspension by forming two new Muslim advocacy organizations on campus. Instead of the MSU we had an organization that took the name of their newspaper called Al Kalima. Under the aegis of Al Kalima and a parallel organization Students for Justice in Palestine they brought in the speakers they wanted. So there was no shutdown of Muslim hate speech on campus. They had the temerity to bring in Ben White a British "journalist," author of: Israeli apartheid, a beginner’s guide. So the MSU in its new guises simply kept on doing what it had done in the past with university permission and student activity funds. In essence, there was no break caused by the suspension over the Ambassador Oren affair. Things went on as before. We didn’t see any abatement in the MSU hate doctrine towards Jews and Israel.
Gordon: When did you become involved with in the Olive Tree Initiative?
Sterling: I had meetings with the Jewish community because community organizations were not involved. I started speaking and involving members of the community asking them to come to the campus. In May, 2010, we finally got through to the community to come out to the UC Irvine campus. The Jerusalem Post wrote about it. We outnumbered the Muslim students. We had a very good response from the community. It was fantastic. However, the Orange County Jewish Federation, far from being pleased about it, was very upset about it.
Gordon: Why were they particularly upset with this event which was very pro-Israel?
Sterling: I was personally told by Orange County Federation and campus Hillel leaders that the Jewish students did want not the Jewish community on the campus. When I looked into it I was told that what was important to Jewish students was that if you talked about antisemitism by Muslims then Jewish students wouldn’t come to UC Irvine. So they were concerned that I was bringing up issues about antisemitism on the campus. The students didn’t really see the necessity of having the Jewish community come out and support Israel when there wasn’t really a need for that. When the community came out the Jewish students refused to join the community even though we had asked them to join. Sadly the students had a booth where they flew both the Israeli and Palestinian flags. I was admonished by the Hillel director for bringing the community to the campus. However, the Jewish community felt the event was very successful. I thought it was important for the community to be involved and demonstrate solidarity with the students on campus at a pro-Israel event.
Gordon: Following this Jewish community pro-Israel event what led you to investigate the Olive Tree Initiative on campus?
Sterling: Well, I had questions about the Olive Tree Initiative starting two and a half years ago. However, I didn’t have any evidence to validate my concerns. I didn’t see any improvement on the campus. I didn’t see peace breaking out if we were sending students to the West Bank. Given the Malik Ali, Galloway and Ambassador Oren events, I didn’t see anything that proved that this was working. It became a vital issue following the pro-Israel event in May. In addition to meeting with community people, I also met with UC Irvine students. In talking to students I felt that not all Jewish students were represented by the Hillel chapter leaders. I found that some students did have valid concerns when I spoke with them. One night in November I opened up my emails and found an email from one of the students I had spoken with on campus. The student sent me a Facebook flier that was put out by the student President of Hillel with a photograph of George Rishmawi indicating he was a co-founder of the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM). I mistakenly thought it must have been the MSU putting this out. Then I realized that the reason the student was sending this to me was because the Olive Tree Initiative was being promoted by the leaders of Hillel. I was hoping that because of the suspension of the MSU, I’d have peace and quiet for a little bit of time before going on my trip. I started to check out the issues and wanted to find out more about the ISM which led me to contact investigative journalist Lee Kaplan and some journalist sources in Israel. They sent me the background information on the ISM as long as the sources were protected. My email was flooded with information from these Israeli sources about the ISM, Rishmawi and related organizations. I started to realize the scope and impact of the Olive Tree Initiative program and involvement of ISM co-founder Rishmawi who was coming to the U.C. Irvine campus. The main issues were Jewish students going on the Olive Tree Initiative program trips to the West Bank and Jewish funding of those trips. If the Olive Tree Initiative wants to send students we can’t stop that. However, we can stop Jewish communal organizations from using philanthropic money by disclosing that the funds were being used for anti-Israel purposes. My goal was to make the community aware of Orange County Jewish Federation and Rose Project funding of the UC Irvine Olive Tree Initiative.
Gordon: What happened to the information you had collected about the connections among the Olive Tree Initiative, Rishmawi and the ISM?
Sterling: Several of us got involved in checking out the research and information. We composed and sent a letter to the leaders of the Jewish Federation and Hillel. The Federation leader and Jordan Fruchtman, the head of the UC Irvine Hillel, sent out a response to our letter. I viewed the responses as petty and venial. My letter was intended to notify that we wanted them to stop funding of the Olive Tree Initiative. Their letter tried to insinuate that I was confused between two different George Rishmawis which trivialized our fact finding investigations. We had reviewed the UC Irvine calendars of 2008 and September 2010 and we noted that the students met with Rishmawi and other anti-Israel people on those trips involved in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel. The bottom line to us was the Orange County Jewish Federation was providing Jewish money sending Jewish students to meet with the enemies of Israel.
Gordon: What is the Rose project of the Orange County Federation? How is it involved with the Olive Tree Initiative?
Sterling: Money used to fund the Olive Tree Initiative travel expenses for UC Irvine Jewish students flows through the Jewish Federation via the Rose Project. It is my understanding the Federation has not acknowledged that they fund the Rose Project.
Gordon: What is the objective of the Rose Project?
Sterling: Well I think it was set up to promote peace and understanding between Israel and the Palestinians while educating Jewish students at UC Irvine about the issues. These were their good intentions. The good intentions were, in my view and many others, unfortunately misdirected. Despite the good intentions, no one in the Orange County Federation Rose Project conducted due diligence. You have to look at the Olive Tree Initiative and ask, “Is this what I thought it was?” If you found out after investigations that you were in error then better to pull back and reassess participation. But in my view to stubbornly go on with support of this program because you are afraid to be proven wrong was a major blunder.
Gordon: Was there any evidence that students who went on the various Olive Tree Initiative trips were “taken in” by the nature of the presentations that they encountered?
Sterling: I believe they have been. I have received letters from students. In one of the letters a student said that he has a really good relationship with Mazin Qumsiyeh. If you read what we have written on Qumsiyeh, he is a nefarious character accused of fomenting antisemitic actions that led to his being denied tenure at Yale Medical School and involved with a notorious anti-Israel pro-Palestinian group in the US, Al Awda (the return). So the reaction of the student about Qumsiyeh was problematic. The Jewish students involved with the Olive Tree Initiative trips are the same ones that wouldn’t stand with the Jewish community pro-Israel event on campus last May. I’ve actually talked to students before and after they’ve gone on these trips. Our students have an opportunity to go on Birth Right Israel trips for free which is a fantastic program. However I am concerned that there may be a conflict of interest because some of the UC Irvine students may be going on both of these trips, Birth Right and the Olive Tree Initiative.
Gordon: Tell us about the Hillel sponsored petition and Federation mailings in opposition to your disclosures about the Olive Tree Initiative.
Sterling: UC Irvine Hillel students defended the Olive Tree Initiative of The Rose project and sent letters to the Orange County Jewish Federation. The Federation responded by sending out over 30,000 letters to their Orange County data base and even to the Jewish Community in Los Angeles. Hillel prepared a petition against our position which allegedly had 100 students’ signatures. It is up on our Ha-Emet.com website. The petition was alarming to the Jewish community because it showed Jewish students opposed to what we were doing. A UC Irvine student, Joe Wolf who appeared with me on a Pajamas Media interview disclosed that many students’ names appeared on the petition despite not granting their permission. Further, they were never shown the letter that we had written to Hillel and the Federation. What has since been discovered was that few students actually authorized their signatures, the rest were fabricated. There was a student whose name was on the petition who I have known since he was probably six years old. He never gave authorization for his name to appear on the petition. This had been tolerated by the Federation. Hillel knew about this. Hillel simply excused its actions by calling it a clerical error. I’m not sure how you excuse 100 names under some kind of clerical error that used an entire data base of the Jewish community in Orange County. It is less the assault on our integrity than it is the calumny that Hillel and the Federation are using the students to defend something like the Olive Tree Initiative that is anti-Israel with antisemitic Palestinian speakers.
Gordon: What have been the results of your efforts to pinpoint the Jewish Federation and UC Irvine Hillel support for the Olive Tree Initiative?
Sterling: Despite the letters from the Wiesenthal Center, despite letters from the Zionist Organization of America, the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism despite a flow of contacts from the community and despite UC Santa Cruz faculty member, Tammi-Rossman Benjamin ‘s letter of due diligence, they have actually continued disavowing involvement. Instead, what I have seen is a more aggressive stand by UC Irvine Jewish students who have made contact with members of the community imploring that the Jewish Federation not stop the Rose Program. I had hoped that these same students would have worked just as hard on the Anti-Israel and antisemitic issues that we saw on the campus like the Ambassador Oren and Galloway affairs. Instead I have witnessed a fight for maintaining the Olive Tree Initiative so that Jewish students can go on Federation sponsored trips. What we have been saying is that there should be no Jewish funding of the Olive Tree initiative trips by the Rose Project. There should be no Jewish funding to send Jewish students into the hands of our enemy.
Gordon: There has been a continuing problem on other major college campuses about Hillel not addressing these issues. How does that compare to what you have witnessed at UC Irvine?
Sterling: I know Nonie Darwish and I know that Hillel students prevented her from speaking at both Columbia and Princeton. I find some of these patterns and this behavior to be troubling because it is a mirror image of what we are seeing at UC Irvine. So the question is why are we having the same problem across American college campuses with the same organization, Hillel?
Gordon: Why do you think Hillel chapters at these universities and Hillel International have not essentially raised the consciousness of these students to defend themselves?
Sterling: I think what’s missing in the Hillel organization is a deeper understanding of the issue. They just don’t do enough due diligence. They don’t check facts. Here is the perfect case at UC Irvine where we had overwhelming evidence of what is going on from information we had received from sources both here and in Israel. Despite this overwhelming evidence we see Hillel and similar Jewish community organizations not correcting themselves. This is alarming because we believe that the same thing is going on at other universities. Given what happened at U.C. Irvine, the intelligent thing to have done is to start an investigation and if the facts proved out, then withdraw from programs like the Olive Tree initiative, and say you made a mistake. We would respect them more for doing that.
Gordon: What would you like to have the Orange County Federation do about the Olive Tree Initiative and is there a precedent?
Sterling: What I’m simply asking the Federation to do is follow the example of the Federation in Northern California that adopted a protocol barring funding of anti-Israel activities following the controversy of showing the anti-Israel film ‘Rachel” at the Jewish Film Festival in July 2009 about the accidental death of ISM activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003. Two long term backers of the San Francisco Jewish Festival, the Koret and Taube Foundation criticized the festival director for ‘partnering’ with two virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups, Jewish Voices for Peace and the American Friends Service that had laid blame for Corrie’s death on the State of Israel. We would like to suggest that the Federation, Rose Project and Hillel adopt the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties Funding Guidelines and to cease any and all connections to the Olive Tree Initiative.
Gordon: Do you think there is something missing in the combination of family and/or communal and or religious education that doesn’t cultivate this pro-Zionist feeling on the part of the young American Jewish students?
Sterling: Well I’ve lately come to the conclusion that perhaps by the time Jewish students reach university is almost too late. Perhaps we need to try to influence the students before University. I think it’s impossible to say that just because somebody joins Hillel or since they have an interest in Israel that you should take it as a given that they know the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. What I’ve seen on the campus is the exact opposite. Jewish students don’t know their facts and their history. We need to educate them long before they get to the University.
Gordon: The other issue is Jewish faculty who could provide continuity and guidance by example at a major university like UC Irvine. What has been their role in addressing the problems that you and others have identified and fought to gain recognition on campus?
Sterling: Jewish and other, non-Jewish, faculty have come forward. More than 60 members of the UC Irvine faculty signed a statement saying that they were concerned about antisemitism on the campus. I think this is very relevant and important because the general public has been told by Hillel there is no antisemitism at UC Irvine. Yet here we have the faculty signing a statement expressing their concerns about antisemitism and personal safety on campus. I’ve been in a room where I gave a talk about UC Irvine and antisemitism. I actually had UC Irvine students show up and tell the audience that there was no antisemitism on campus. A man in the audience stood up and said that he had lived through Nazi Germany and remembered as a youth of 16 being a room similar to the current event where people would go back and forth denying was happening in Germany. Clearly, the Hillel student leader didn’t heed what this Holocaust survivor said. Instead he continually told this man, there was no antisemitism at UC Irvine. That denial in the face of the statement by 60 university faculty members who signed the declaration about antisemitism on campus demonstrates a cognitive disconnect. Is it a deliberate disconnect? I say that it is because the Hillel leadership wanted people to believe that none of this is going on because they feared in the face of apparent Islamic antisemitism that Jewish students wouldn’t elect to attend UC Irvine and wouldn’t join Hillel.
Gordon: Is denial of Islamic antisemitism something that you have encountered among these Jewish leaders both on campus and in the community?
Sterling: I think that pretty much sums it up. It is tolerating the intolerance of the intolerable that is a huge problem. The community actually trusts Jewish communal organizations to keep it safe and they are letting the community down. We’ve had enough of tolerating it. It is time for action.
Gordon: You were back in South Africa recently where you spoke about this American college campus experience. What happened when you discussed this?
Sterling: Well I spoke to some people on Zionist boards in South Africa. I shared with them what happened here. I found that they were very interested in what was happening on campuses in America. I was sure that it couldn’t possibly be going on in South African Jewish community. Having the background and knowing how cohesive the community was I was shocked when I found out that there was a mirror image program there. Jewish students in South Africa who had gone across to the West Bank areas had met with some of the same people in the Olive Tree Initiative program. They were astounded by the similarities. That alerted them to keep more of an eye on this.
Gordon: Dee, we want to congratulate you for your commendable perseverance and commitment to defend the very same interests of Jewish students, Hillel leaders and Federation leaders who deny the troubling existence of Muslim antisemitism on the UC Irvine campus. Thank you for this most important interview.
Sterling: You are welcome.
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