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Young Donors Find Fashionable Common Ground

As half of the wildly popular pop/rock duo Evan and Jaron, Evan Lowenstein is accustomed to showering fans with autographs, complimentary CDs and concert memorabilia. But lately, he’s even been giving away his own jewelry — specifically, his “Common Ground” necklaces, which he says are a symbol of his love for Israel.

“I can never keep it on for more than a couple of days,” Lowenstein said in a recent interview with the Forward. “Every single time I put one on, someone will say, ‘What is that?’ and I’ll say, ‘Actually, it’s an interesting story…’ and before I’m done I give it to the person.”

That contagious simplicity is all part of the pop star’s plan to create a symbol of Jewish solidarity that transcends politics. Lowenstein’s glass amulet is handmade in Israel and filled with soil from sites around the country — including Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada and the Sea of Galilee — that together form an orange-, brown- and green-striped pattern. The idea, he said, emerged after a friend made a similar pendant as a memento of his service in the Israeli army.

After a successful launch last summer, the necklace aspires to a place in the fashion-meets-philanthropy pantheon that also includes red AIDS ribbons and the yellow “livestrong” bracelets recently popularized by Lance Armstrong. It is currently marketed in the United States and Britain by the firm Common Ground for Israel, which Lowenstein heads along with partners Mark Moshe Bellows and Robyn Baltuch, and has proved popular with fans, both young and old, who want to keep Israel close their hearts.

“I have a little piece of Israel with me all day — I love that,” said Adam Tantleff, who serves on the board of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Force. He has not taken the necklace off since last summer, when a member of the group’s 40-person mission to Israel gave it to the others. Beyond its personal meaning, Tantleff views the necklace as a positive way to educate about Israel. “It leads to conversations with others when people ask you about it, when people see you wearing it,” he explained. “You know —‘Why do you wear this? Why do you find it so important?’ That’s part of the reason I wear it.”

At the same time, the organization’s goals go beyond consciousness-raising. While the group is making the necklace available for individual purchase on the Web, it is encouraging Jewish groups — including camps, schools and hospitals — to use the necklace as a fund-raising tool, particularly among young people.

“I wanted to create a modified Girl Scout Cookie method,” explained Bellows, an actor and producer who also works as a nonprofit consultant. “If there’s a kid in an eighth grade in Iowa or Chicago, or wherever it is, and this is the catalyst for them staying involved — they feel ownership for a project — that’s going to propel them for life.”

A number of youth organizations already have built successful charity projects around the necklace, including Camp Young Judea Sprout Lake in Verbank, N.Y. “Kids these days are buying a lot of costume jewelry,” Camp Director Helene Drobenare said. “Why not put together an educational message and connect it to Israel? It’s bringing MTV into the Jewish world, [and] that’s great. You know, the kids really loved it.”

While profit margins vary, typical bulk prices range from $10 to $13 per necklace, and the suggested resale price is $18 to $25. This creates the opportunity for a relatively easy, but significant fund raiser, according to Rabbi Ranon Teller of St. Louis’s Congregation B’nai Amoona. “They have sold themselves,” he said of the necklaces, adding that his tenth graders are raising money for a trip to Washington, D.C., and already have sold out on their first order.

Bellows, of course, is more than happy to send more. “We have to spread the love so more people get involved, from the financial perspective, but certainly just really from a heart-and-soul perspective,” he said. “If we want continuity — real continuity — whether in the Jewish world or outside of the Jewish world… that has to be cultivated.”

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