Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Lone Soldier

Soldier Boy

Have you ever thought what it must be like to be a soldier with no family? You are placing yourself in harm's way every day and there is no one close by from whom you draw comfort. In Israel there is the notion of the Lone Soldier. It refers to people who are in the military who have no family in country. Many are new immigrants who have made aliyah alone, but others may be orphans or individuals from broken homes. While other soldiers spend occasional weekends and holiday with their families, upwards of 6,000 soldiers have no immediate family to support them. Federation, through the Jewish Agency, funds the Lone Soldier Center, which assists Lone Soldiers by providing Shabbat and holiday meals, creating community, and giving many other tangible and intangible goods and services to these young men and women. The goal is to allow the Lone Soldiers to know that there are people close by who care and who keep these soldiers' safety in their thoughts.

We were privileged to meet a Lone Soldier this morning. Mischa was born in Tbilisi and while he was growing up he took advantage of all of the programs supported by Federation dollars. He went to the Chesed Center and to summer camp. When he was 15 he knew he wanted to live in Israel, and Federation helped him achieve this goal as well. At 18 he joined the Army, as all young men and women do.

Next week will be his 21st birthday, and JFNA wanted to do something special for him. None of us in the audience knew what was in store. Neither did Mischa. Harold Gernsbacher, the National Campaign Chair, announced that we set up a Skype call with Mischa's parents so that they could wish him a happy birthday. The call went through and our Lone Soldier could see his parents on the computer (and we could see them on the screen).

Okay, that was sweet, but about a minute and a half into their conversation, the Skype connection went out. Ugh! I thought that Israel was all about high tech. How in the world could this snafu happen? And at the JFNA Mission no less! We didn't even get to sing happy birthday while the parents were on the phone! Could we get the call reestablished?

What happened next was truly incredible...and I assure you there was not a dry eye in the hall. Harold comes up to the microphone and says that since we can't get the call back on line, we would have to just settle for something else. From across the room in come Misch's parents, flown here by JFNA to spend Mischa's birthday with him. At least for this week, Mischa is not a Lone Soldier.

As a parent of two 20-somethings and a 17-year-old, my heart filled to practically bursting to see how happy Mischa was. The hugs lasted several minutes as we all -- every single one of us -- choked back our tears. Who could ask for anything more? That was pure love.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

More on Shabbat

A few more Shabbat pics, and some more thoughts:

In my last post I didn't speak about going to the Wall. It was late already (I think I turned off the computer at about 3 am) and I didn't have it in me to talk about the emotional experience of meeting Shabbat at that holy site. I'm not very much more rested, but here's what I can say.

The anticipation was growing as we walked from the Tower of David to the Western Wall. I don't think anyone can not be moved by the experience of welcoming Shabbat at the Wall. My first impression when going through the entrance, when they have men go to one side and women to the other was that of exclusion. It felt marginalizing to be filtered in that way. Not to mention that the men's side was larger, and that the men seemed to be much, much louder. But that feeling didn't last. Before going up to the Wall I sat for a while in a chair and observed the sights and sounds of the women's side. The first thing I noticed was the diversity: Hasidic women; modern Orthodox women; tourists; locals; young women on Birthright or other trips taking selfies; women with infants and young children. No one was exactly like me, and yet everyone was exactly like me. They were all here to connect to their past, to celebrate their identity, to embrace the holy.

I went up to the Wall and patiently waited for an opening to get close enough to touch it, to rest my forehead on this ancient symbol of our heritage. I said a personal prayer next to a young woman who I surmised from her slightly too loud and somewhat distracting prayers was some sort of fundamentalist Christian. Again, diversity was the theme. We are all different and we are all the same, with the same yearnings for connection to a greater spirit.

I then stood in the back on a ledge to take in the scene more fully. The men, meanwhile were wrapping up their Shabbat prayers and were singing and dancing with energy and joy. As were the women. The ruach was unbelievable on so many levels. I just wanted to inhale the energy. It was truly inspirational in the sense that it filled my entire being with peace and joy.

And then off to dinner., feeling amazingly whole.

Next Stop, Jerusalem

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem

It's Friday, we are all exhausted and functioning on an average of 3 hours of sleep each night. But Shabbat is now just around the corner and so is Jerusalem. 

We began our day with a stop at Mount Hertzl to see the Memorial for Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel. There was a memorial service led by an Ethiopian rav who sang a haunting prayer in Hebrew and Amharic. 


We then went into the educational center where we heard from Professor Jack Habib, a leading expert on applied social research, and Oshra Friedman, an Ethiopian Jew who is now the Coordinator of Northern Region and Parnerships at the Rashi Foundation. The discussion revolved around the issues of discrimination and economic barriers. Although there has been progress, large economic gaps still exist between the Ethiopian community and other ethnic groups in Israel. As with many of the people we have heard from on this trip, Oshra was inspiring. Her message: "Don't let others judge you or make assumptions about what they think you are. No matter where you are, tell them who you are."

And now we are finally on our way to Jerusalem. There is a palpable shift in the energy as we approach the city. Our entire trip has been fascinating, but Jerusalem is what we are all waiting for. It truly is coming home. We have just a short time to walk through the Machne Yehudah  -- the pictures will give you a taste of all the delicious treats people were buying in preparation for Shabbat -- and then we went back to the hotel to prepare for Kabbalat Shabbat.    (and yes, I did buy some of that gorgeous halvah. Anyone want to bet whether any of it will make it home to my family?)

Kabbalat Shabbat was at the Tower of David, where we were serenaded by the outrageously fun a cappella group, Kippa Live. Again, I took some video, but it won't upload to this blog (I sure miss my 17-year-old right about now!), so if I ever do figure it out I will put it on the Federation Facebook page. But trust me, they were terrific.


We lit candles and then walked to the Mamilla rooftop for a tremendous Shabbat dinner, where we were joined by Ofir and Bat-Galim Shaer and four of their five daughters. The Shaers lost their son, Gilad who was one of the three teenagers kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in June 2014. It was an honor to meet them and to witness their strength. No parent, no father, no mother, no sister or brother should ever know the grief they have known. There are just no words to express the complexity of emotion I felt seeing them in their Shabbat finery, thanking us for the work we do to repair the world and to support Israel. I never felt more like one large family than at that moment.

I'll end here. Shabbat shalom.

ps - it's actually late on Saturday night/Sunday morning as I write this, but not quite Shabbat back home, so I wish everyone a peaceful Shabbat filled with love.

Thursday: Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure

We arrived late Wednesday night in Tel Aviv. Of course the rational thing to do would be to go directly to sleep. But -- of course -- I didn't. Instead I took a quick shower and met Lauren, my oldest daughter's friend and day school classmate, for a drink. She happened to be in Israel for a Jewish National Fund social media committee trip and we overlapped in Tel Aviv. So once again, sleep was becoming elusive.

Thursday was another day packed with important site visits. But first we had a briefing from Udi Sommer, a professor of political science from Tel Aviv University, specializing in American and comparative politics and political methodology. 

He spoke about U.S. - Israel relations, framing the presentation by acknowledging three tectonic shifts in recent years: First, the U.S. is becoming less and less dependent on foreign oil. Second, international relations are shifting due to the Arab Spring. And third is the deal with Iran that was just signed by the P5 +1. He spoke about paradigm shifts in Middle East conflicts: the rise of power of non-state actors (e.g., ISIS); the ongoing power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran; extremists v. moderates; Sunnis v. Shiites. After an overview of Israeli politics and some history of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict through Operation Protective Edge, Udi focused on Iran, the Iran deal, and U.S. - Israeli relations. It was entertaining, thought provoking and informative to be sure.

We then boarded the buses and headed south. This leg of the mission was to learn about how the region has fared in the year since Operation Protective Edge. We split into a few different groups so that we could visit a variety of sites. Our bus focused on programs for people with disabilities. 

First stop: the Accessible Health Zone program, which helps people with disabilities embrace a healthy lifestyle.  Think for a moment how difficult it is for people with physical or mental disabilities to go to the gym, exercise, cook healthy meals. This program, funded in part by Federation dollars, empowers people with disabilities to do just that by providing support systems for the disabled; ensuring that health programs and infrastructure for people with disabilities are accessible; and building a leadership network of successful people with disabilities.

Here we met Dror and Ida, two incredibly inspiring individuals. Dror started to go blind as a teenager due to a congenital condition. A high-tech professional, he turned this loss into a personal gain for himself and for others.  Dror was matched with a regular (sighted) running partner; he now runs frequently, and has gone on to hike the Israel Trail which traverses the entire country north to south, and has even done a ½ Iron Man! Now a peer facilitator, Dror conducts workshops encouraging other disabled people to embrace a healthier lifestyle and follow his example.

Paralyzed as a result of a spinal injury, Ida works for the Ministry of Welfare, which partners with the Accessible Health Zone. During a physically and emotionally difficult rehab period which lasted a year, Ida became clinically depressed and would not leave the house. She had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that life around her continued without her. A counselor put her in touch with the Accessible Health Zone. Not only did she learn how to become more independent, but eventually, understanding that her accident affected not only her but also her husband and children, she created a support group for disabled mothers. She went on to make her local beach Wheelchair accessible so that she could take her children out. Ida is such a powerhouse that she is credited for making Ashkelon one of the most accessible city in all of Israel.

Our next stop was at the Center for Independent Living, where we met another inspiring woman. Dalia, a Moroccan Israeli who, despite her own physical disability, helps residents of Be'er Sheva gain the skills and create the community necessary to live independently. Her disabilities do not define her; rather they motivate her to help others feel included and empowered.

The Center has a wonderful restaurant called Inca, where we ate lunch. All of the employees have disabilities. 

Dalia is known in Be'er Sheva as the go-to person for any questions or concerns about the disabled and works tirelessly to see that they lives lives with dignity and respect. Remember that Be'er Sheva is not too far from Gaza. During the war last year residents would have 90 seconds to find shelter once the sirens went off. This, as you might imagine, would be extremely stressful for an able-bodied person. But imagine how difficult it was for Dalia, Dror, Ida and the people they work with and care about. These three are true heroes and are models of resiliency and strength for others.

After lunch we continued our site visits meeting two young adults who work in a Youth Village, where at-risk teens go to school, live and receive support services. The young interns are there as part of the Onward program, which is a post-Birthright program that lasts for 6-10 weeks. The Federation, through the Jewish Agency, provides partial funding to bring college-age Americans to see "real" Israel through a different lens. Although there are a variety of Onward programs, the one we saw was a service learning opportunity aimed at deepening the participants' understanding of contemporary Israel.

And then we went Onward ourselves...onward to kibbutz Kfar Azza, where we heard from a soldier who participated in Operation Protective Edge. He gave a heart rending account of his experiences, from the beginning search for the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped to the difficult and hazardous search for tunnels. He lost a member of his platoon, and another member was severely injured when a tunnel exploded. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it is hard not to be moved by the sacrifices that these young men and women have made. 

The theme of the day was to see how our Federation dollars help, both in times of crisis such as during Operation Protective Edge, and to support and sustain Israelis who need assistance. It is important to emphasize that the programs we visited are not exclusively for Jewish clients. The three centers serve Arabs, Christians and Jews in need. 

And finally, we gathered at the kibbutz for dinner and then a night of Israeli dancing. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

You Say Goodbye, And I Say Hello

It is with mixed emotions that I bid goodbye to Tbilisi. We met people who are resilient, talented, beautiful and, above all, proud. Proud to be Georgian and proud to be Jewish. Proud to have overcome many struggles and proud to live in a democracy. But the country has a long road ahead, and many people with whom we talked wish to make aliyah to Israel. While I am thrilled that they feel a connection to Israel, does this mean that the best and the brightest will leave behind those who are too old or too frail to start afresh? And what will become of the 2600-year-old Georgian Jewish culture? Will that die a death by 1,000 cuts? I found myself musing about what it would take to keep the Jewish Georgian culture alive, and how much would be needed to create better options for young adults who are educated and talented but who are out of work.

Clearly there are no easy answers. The problems are not restricted to Jews. Unlike many other places in Europe the issue isn't one of anti-semitism but of economic opportunities. It is an issue that the Georgian government will need to solve. But in the meantime it is good to know that the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee are there to help Jews in need and to reinvigorate the culture through camp programs, the Chesed Center, food assistance and myriad other programs.

We boarded the plane with more than a little excitement about getting to Israel. Now, I must confess that I haven't been to Israel since, gulp, 1975. I was pretty much an outlier on this mission, as there are a number of "mission junkies" in our group. They go on at least one mission a year, sometimes more. I have become quite used to hearing sentences that start with "Well, when I was on the mission to Ukraine/Ethiopia/Budapest/Romainia/China... And here I was, a lone staff person who last visited 40 years ago. What would this country look like? Did I have a mental image that was born of my BBYO summer trip? Would it all come streaming back to me as soon as we landed? Would I even recognize the motel? I knew that it would be as if I were seeing the country for the first time.

...and here is my first glimpse:

Baggage claim, passport control, bus and finally our hotel in Tel Aviv. Tomorrow will be a full day.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Camp fun...and then Israel

Leaving on a Jet Plane

That seems like a fitting title for this blog entry since everyone "of a certain age" sang that song at camp. "Our bags are packed and we're ready to go..." but before we leave on a jet plane for Israel we first head out to one of the several Jewish summer camps across the Former Soviet Union (FSU) run by the Jewish Agency for Israel and funded in part by the Federation system. We actually didn't go to the camp since it was several hours away, but we met the counselors and had a taste of the camp experience at a lake. 

The point of the camps is to connect Jews in the FSU with their heritage and with Israel. Having lived under Soviet rule, many of these children have had no Jewish cultural experiences prior to going to camp. Here, they learn about their history, they sing songs, they short, they are at Jewish summer camp! It is just one of many ways that the Jewish Agency is restoring Jewish culture in eastern Europe and connecting Jewish children to their Jewish past, present and future.

Exhausted, hot and filled with emotions and memories, we all boarded the bus one final time in Georgia and headed for the airport. Next stop, Tel Aviv.


Wednesday: Tbilisi and Israel

If I was tired before, now I am truly exhausted. Tuesday was a very late night and Wednesday an equally early morning. After packing and checking out we had a quick workshop with Fed Talks. Then back on the bus to bring us to the old part of the city for a city tour. First stop was the Georgian Museum of Jewish History.

I won't comment on the last picture except to say that the men in our group were happy to have had their bris in the 20th century!

We visited two synagogues, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic, and both beautiful. Here are some pics of the Ashkenazi shul:

And photos of the Grand Synagogue:

We continued our walk through the Old City. Here's a random shot of dark humor that is a chilling reminder of their not-so-distant past:

Then, a cable car up the mountain for another spectacular view of this photogenic city.

Lest you think our day was full enough, we boarded the bus to head to camp. More on that in my next blog entry.