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Fuel For Truth - Pro-Israel Activist Joseph S. Richards

I call him in New York Thursday afternoon, August 25, 2005. He's been on the job for 18-months. Before that he was an actor (Head & Shoulders commercial, Law & Order: Criminal Intent – Detective Marinoff and Detective McGowan), producer, and model (GQ, Glamour).

What kind of relationship did you have with Israel before you got involved in this?

Joe: "It played a role knowing that it was the only place where Jews could feel comfortable being who they are and they needed a place to go. I had no connection growing up. I was not religious. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. My parents were born in Bergen-Belsen after the war when it was a refugee camp. That's where they grew up. I was first generation American and I always thought of Israel as one safe place for Jews.

"I was 21 when I first visited Israel. After Syracuse University, I traveled through Europe with a friend. We were in Greece. I said, 'Israel's right over there. I don't think I'll ever have a chance to go there again. I'm going.'

"Israel was nothing like what I expected. Israel was a modern pluralistic society. I never really knew Israeli Arabs existed. They all lived together peacefully. It was 1994. A good time. The Oslo peace process. The women were absolutely beautiful. There was such an amalgamation of people, I felt like it was the United States of Jews."

I assume that when you were growing up in New York, most of your friends were Jewish.

"Not at all. I was born in Manhattan and then I was moved out to Port Jefferson, Long Island. Few Jewish people. All my friends were not Jewish until I was eleven years old, when my parents moved me to the Five Towns, New York, a very Jewish area. It took me time to adjust."

How has it influenced you to be the grandchild of Holocaust survivors?

"Tremendously. They let me know there were tough Jews out there. I didn't grow up with images of tough Jews."

Joe looks Italian. He played Tony in Tony and Tina's Wedding. "I've gotten away with being part of conversations where people start to say things about Jewish people and I'm sitting there thinking, 'Am I going going to say something?' My parents taught me to not get involved. Walk away. Don't start trouble. If there's a problem, stay away.

"I got tired of it but I couldn't defend myself against all the stereotypes, so I kept my mouth shut."

Were you ever an activist?

"Nothing."

What propelled you into the role you have now?

"September 11. I lost six of my friends (including Josh Rosenblum, Scott Weingard, Josh Vitale, Brett Freiman, Morty Frank). My best friend was Muslim -- Taimour Kahn.

"All were childhood friends except Taimour. I met him after college who went to SUNY Albany with my two best friends from HS. We lived two blocks away from one another and became brothers in a sense. We referred to one another as “my Muslim brother” or “My Jewish brother” because we knew we came from the same place. Abraham.

Post 9-11, I moved into his apartment to keep it for his family. I moved out after the landlord sued the family.

"I still have his bed and sleep on it till this day.

"Prior to September 11, Israel was facing a yearlong streak of terrorism. I couldn't fully understand it. I knew that Israel was not how they were portrayed in the media.

"Taimour said to me, 'Joe, what the hell is going on in your country?' I said, 'Taimour, I don't know, but Israel is not causing this violence.' He said, 'Don't you think you need to understand what is going on?' I started reading about what was going on and the history of the conflict. I'd come back and report to him and he'd teach me about Islam and Muslims.

"After September 11, I realized it was the same people who were coming after us in the United States were coming after Israel. It was the same terror apparatus with the same goal -- to rid the world of Israel and Western society.

"On September 16, I received a call from Jon Loew, who's now the President of Fuel For Truth. He pulled together about 15 young secular Jewish guys. He said, 'We have a problem here and Israel's been facing the problem for the past year. We need to do something.' That night there were still sirens going off. There was a discussion, an argument. People were saying, 'Who the hell are we to do anything?'

"At the time, I was producing commercials, films and live events in New York such as the Tribeca Film Festival.

"We paired up with pollster and communications strategist Dr. Frank Luntz. We did research about the beliefs and knowledge of young Americans about Israel and we found it was alarming."

How much success have you had getting people in the entertainment industry to be interested in Israel?

"We've got some soap stars to speak at our events such as Grayson McCouch (who plays Dusty on “As The World Turns”). We have appearances by people in TV and film. An up-and-coming celebrity and nightclub host Gerald Bunsen tattooed 'Fuel For Truth' on his forearm. He's not Jewish. He just understands what's happening in the world. He's bringing in a lot of other actors."

How has your work affected you?

"I got really depressed at the beginning. There's so much ignorance out there and lack of motivation to learn. It's hard to get people to care about media bias.

"We hold social/educational events. We book a nightclub and we create the atmosphere that they'd have when they go out, but it's all to create awareness about Israel and the United States war against terrorism. We'll stop for 30-minutes and deliver a powerpoint presentation by us, not a professional spokesperson. We explain, 'Look, we're just like you. This is what I've been doing with my life. But I've educated myself and this is what I've learned and we think it is important you learn for yourselves.'

"For the past couple of years, I've been motivated only by the people we effect. There's so much negativity out there, with what's happening in London and Madrid and Israel.

"It's the young people that we're turning on."

Do you feel infused with purpose in a way that you never felt before?

"Absolutely. I never cared. It was more important to me to go out to the clubs and hang out with my friends and meet chicks and see to my career. I can't believe I'm doing what I'm doing. But running around the city on September 11, I didn't know what the hell was going on and I don't ever want to have that feeling again."

What are the most difficult parts of your job?

"Raising money. We come from outside the organized Jewish community. They look at us, 'Who the hell are you guys and what are you doing? You have to get involved with our program or we're not going to help you.' The first year we spent all of our own money. We received two grants from UJA-Federation of NY for a total of $60,000 over two years. Now we are on our own.

"Everyone else has asked us to do events with them but they only want to benefit them. They don't realize that by educating young people, they are eventually going to become involved in the Jewish community.

"The Jewish community is missing a step. They aren’t going to get young adults to become donors if they don’t care about being Jewish. We wake them up and show them why they should care.

"The hardest thing is raising money from young people, because young people don't have money. You have to go to old people.

"Number two is getting the right people, finding the social leaders in New York City or on a college campus and explaining to them what we do and why it is important for them to get involved.

"We only throw two events a year because that is all we can afford. Since our organization started, we've only spent $150,000. We've attracted over 3,000 young adults. That's about $50 per person to get them to learn something about Israel and get involved. Jewish organizations are spending millions of dollars and they're not reaching the demographic we are. Why? Because we are the demographic they're reaching out to. We were never turned on by Jewish organizations. They couldn't reach us. It wasn't cool. Why? I don't know. That's their problem. I don't know what they're doing to create a continuity plan for the next generation but it hasn't been working.

"I used to be a nightclub promoter when I was in college. I was responsible for bringing thousands of people together for parties. If they would've been able to get to me, I would've done something for them because I cared about my identity as a Jew.

"I go out to nightclubs. I hang out with people from TV shows and models and who's going to get them to come? You're going to have a rabbi who's going to get them to come to an event for Israel? No, you're going to have a guy who's a former actor who cares and who can hang out with them because he's in the same place.

"We may not have the answers to everything, but we're making it cool to be Jewish again without telling people, 'You need to be more religious.' We're using Israel as a rallying point to get people aware and in touch of who they are as a Jew, and for non-Jews who care about Israel."

You sound like Theodore Herzl.

Joe laughs. "Whoa. Thank you, I guess. Ze'ev Jabotinksy would be really good too. Jon Loew, FFT president, would be our Moses."

Jon Loew, Curtis Sliwa, Joe Richards