I love traveling. Even with the craziness of today's travel, I love it. I'm in awe that we can travel some 8,000 miles in a day and arrive safely.
The sites and sounds and history of each new place is like discovering a whole new world. And yet, meeting fellow travelers and expressing interest in local customs launches a shared experience and our world becomes a little smaller, a little more friendly and a little less overwhelming. I always find it funny that I am uncomfortable walking into a party or event and yet am happy to speak with people on street corners, in restaurants or on ferries wherever we happen to be in the world.
I've always wanted to travel to Ireland and Rick can trace his family back in Ireland to the early 1800's, so this is a dream come true for both of us. We've been planning the trip for about two years and are beyond excited. As always, when we travel I love to connect with Jewish history, so this will give us an opportunity to explore the small but vibrant Jewish history as well.
Of course our first foray was simply getting from the airport to the hotel driving on the left side of the street. We made it and celebrated with a touch of Jameson's.
When I first started working as a professional I was told whatever you do don't cry, It makes you look like such a girl and you won't be taken seriously.
I tried really hard and have never shed a tear in meetings or tense situations but I have to admit that with my job I cry all the time. I can't help it. I'm so moved by people's stories, their generosity and the programs we support.
Needless to say I went to Israel with a healthy supply of tissues. I started tearing up when we arrived at the airport when I saw the Mezuzah on the entrance to the terminal from the plane. Being in Israel for me is always overwhelming on so many levels. .I promise I'm not going to list every moment of being phaklempt but I do need to share one story.
We were in our partnership region (that I'll write about in another blog) and meet with one of JCFs grantees, a group called SAHI..
We met outside a park in a parking lot and sat on pillows and blankets around a bonfire. Young men in there 20s and 30s began telling us about the program which is aimed at at helping at risk youth who roam the streets after dark.
These young men set up the bonfire a few months ago and waited until the youth came to check them out. In a surprising twist the young men didn't start telling the kids about programs they could get involved with. .they asked for help.
The youth were surprised. ."How can we help you? "
"We are looking for families who need food..and we don't know who they are. .we are hoping you can help us. "
The kids were intrigued and started thinking. .and they started suggesting families that they knew needed help.
The young men took it one step further. . "Would you be willing to help us deliver the food? But it has to be secret so we need you to put the food in front of the door and then knock and run away so they don't know who is bringing the food. If they don't answer knock again and hide until you know they have their box. "
The kids were hooked. In just two months there are 15 youth who show up every week to help. They are starting to come up with more families that need food, so now the leaders are teaching the young volunteers how to talk to business owners about making donations.
The kids are opening up. One shared that he wants his life to be different and that he was scared about an upcoming court appointment. The organizers went to court with him and the judge gave him leniency because of his involvement with SAHI.
They give the kids dog tags that say "The greatest good is to do for others."
And the families who are receiving the food? They are overwhelmed. One youth reported that as he was running away after knocking on a door he heard a young boy through the doing say "Mommy, Mommy, it's the food angels!"
Oh damn, I need a tissue....
Our visit continues to inform and inspire. Just a few days ago an historic decision was made to create a space at the Western Wall that will be open to families, both men and women.
Women of the Wall have been working towards this moment for some 30 years.
In the United States we have the separation of church and state. In Israel religion and government are intertwined. This has resulted in certainly the protection of religious observance but it has caused tension between the ultra orthodox and non orthodox communities.
Anat Hoffman, the CEO of the Israel Religious Action Center, met with us to talk about the role of religion in Israel. Her enthusiasm was infectious and we joined in her excitement over the achievement of a space open to both men and women at the Wall.
Having worked in the Jewish Community on and off for over 30 years and watching both the evolution of Israel and the role of religion and society within the state has me raising an increasing number of questions.
I was always taught that we were to support Israel no matter what and that it was not up to we who live in the Diaspora to question what goes on within Israel's borders. We don't live with the threat of war and suicide bombers every day so therefore we need to just be supportive.
What I have watched evolve are customs and laws that we would never accept in the U.S. I am still conscious of living outside of Israel, but it is my homeland too and when we see things that threaten Israel's future we should raise questions and engage in a familial debate.
What happened last year over the Iran nuclear pact broke my heart, not because of the differing views but because of the fissions that occurred. What has made our community so amazing is that we can yell and scream and yet at the end of the day it is a hug and matzo ball soup.
I think this one sided approach to being supportive of Israel has hurt the American Jewish community.
One of the ways that we in the states can express our concern is through our funding. So for example, one of the issues that concerns our community is the the lack of core curriculum in Haredi (ultra orthodox) schools. This lack is going to result in an undereducated workforce in the future. Hence our funding of Hachmey Lev.
I mentioned it in a previous blog. What I didn't share is that the boys had a one day walk out last week to protest their poor, cramped and unacceptable accommodations. The local municipality is taking the concerns more seriously now.
I was barely able to contain my excitement. I think there was nervousness that Is be upset. Nothing could be further from the truth. These young men are taking charge of their lives and their future. I met with a group of young men who were warm and friendly, thoughtful and engaged. They are just as observant as they were before, they are just open to learning and hearing about different communities.
My time here is raising so many questions and thoughts and my love for this extraordinary country is ever increasing.
What is it about Israel?
Is it seeing a Mezuzah the moment you get off the plane? Is it being surrounded by the language of our people or the ancient stones that evoke the images of our history?
Or is it seeing young and cool Israelis walking aside Chassidic Jews as young orthodox kids skate by with tzitzit and kipahs flying?
Whatever it is, my heart is full and I've been tearing up since we landed.
In figuring out where to stay in Jerusalem I wanted to find a place that was "Mamash Yisraeli" (very Israeli). I wanted to be surrounded by Hebrew and every day Israelis. What I found was The Market Courtyard by the Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem's open air market.
It is perfect. My memories harken back 40 years (yikes!) when as a college student I spent a year on kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. So many memories (including my Hebrew) have come bubbling to the surface.
I remember buying yarn to knit an afghan to beat the cold on the kibbutz (and yes I still have that gold, orange and green blanket-it was the 70's!). I remember trying real halva for the first time and realizing that it wasn't really sawdust.
We wandered through the market this morning haggling and buying food for the next few days. The people, colors, sights and smells making me grin from ear to ear.
Meetings start soon. .but for this first morning we are enjoying the hustle and bustle of Agrippas Street and being in Jerusalem.
Rick and I land in Israel on February 3rd and we are so excited! It's true that I cry at commercials and am easily moved, but I can truly say that nothing inspires me more than going to Israel. It's as if both my lungs and heart expand. I'm overwhelmed at what our people have created and the commitment to our Jewish future.
The dynamic tension between Israelis, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs is never far from my thoughts. Our lens however, is to honor each community and people and try to ascertain strategies and action steps that will move the communities forward together. It is beyond our capacity to lock up the extremists on both sides (though I'd like to). There are many inside Israel working together from each community and those programs are some of the most important programs that JCF supports.
Kids from Hand in Hand
We'll be traveling with the Weintraub Israel Center, but as before we'll be adding visits to some of our grantees and meeting with certain organizations with whom we hope we can develop strategic alliances.
During our last visit, my charge was - find out what are the biggest issues facing Israel from the Israeli perspective. I was stunned when regional peace came in third. The top issues of concern were the relationship and role of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) to mainstream Israelis and the economy.
That visit had an amazing impact on our Jewish Community Foundation as it helped to shape our funding in Israel. When we identify our priorities we always look through two lenses- 1) What is most needed; and 2) What will see to the future security of the state. I'll be writing about this during the days ahead.
So pack your cyber bag and join us!
Having drinks at the Del Coronado Rick and I were struck by a large outburst by the party next to us.
Looking up we saw hugs, tears and joy. A member of the party turned to us to apologize for the disturbance. "Excuse us," he explained, "our family has not seen eaach other in 20 years. With the incursion in Iraq the whole family fled-- to Canada, Europe and the States. We are here for a wedding and there is so much joy in being united." He paused, then added, "We are Christian."
My heart broke just a little that he felt he needed to qualify lest we be fearful of the joyous, loving family sitting next to us.
Far from being fearful I wanted to join in. This family looks just like mine, they could be cousins and, of course, they are.
We watched as the family hugged, shared food, fed each other and tasted each other's drinks. So like my family. it's how we show our familial bonds. We feed each other and eat off each other's plates.
A woman my age wandered around offering cookies from a bag- clearly a treat she had made to remind everyone of the tastes of home. How funny as but just weeks before I had made my grandmother's recipe for Mandel Broit for my mother's 85th Birthday celebration. When I got a closer look I laughed when I realized that the cookies looked just like Rugeleh.
I was then startled when I heard one woman call out "Aba" (father in Hebrew) but they'd been speaking Arabic. So of course, I googled father in Arabic and "Baba" popped up.
So close. We are all so much alike.
A this family was fleeing their homeland, I was sitting with the Civil Rights Coalition of the Bay Area grappling with an anti-Semitic incident that had occurred, when someone asked, "I don't get it, why is their anti-Semitism?" I responded from the heart, "We don't get it either and have been asking the same question for centuries."
Flash forward 20 years and such minimal progress has been made in the Middle East. And yet here in the states is a family reunion of folks that looks just like mine.
Why can't we remember that when you go back far enough we come from the same family. Here's to looking forward -- away from hatred and mistrust and towards celebrating those who are much more interested in feeding each other and celebrating each other's joys.
After our group left, Rick and I had a few days in Jerusalem to meet with more folks and wander through the streets. We had the opportunity to visit with one of our grantees- Yad L'Yad, or Hand to Hand, a growing movement of Arab and Israeli schools. The campus in Jerusalem is their biggest, with about five campuses currently being operated. Their goal is to have a total of 15 campuses throughout the country.
The students study together, learn Hebrew, Arabic and English along with a broad range of academic subjects and have both Arab and Israeli teachers. The parents work through issues together - everything from curriculum review to holiday celebrations. They estimate that between the students and their families that about 20,000 individuals are growing and learning together. Talk about an impact!
Then it was off to meet with Offi Zisser with the Jewish Funders Network Israel to talk about the state of Israeli Philanthropy. One of the questions I was asked to explore while in Israel was whether those Israelis that can are contributing to support important local causes. The answer is a resounding yes. It is happening in a number of areas, in a number of ways. In the United States it is part of the culture of the wealthy to be involved philanthropically. There is a move to create the same culture in Israel. Currently there are over 1,500 Israeli contributing $25,000 or more annually, with an estimated 10,000 having the capacity.
At the same time, there are grassroots efforts emerging where community members are supporting local efforts. Historically, the country was so new that Israelis didn't have the capacity to develop Israeli philanthropy while there were some who felt their contribution was simply living in Israel on the front lines. As the country continues to develop and expand its capacity, so too are philanthropic efforts underway.
Rick and I then headed out to wander in Jerusalem, starting with the Mahane Yehuda - or the open air Jewish market. When I spent my year in Israel on Kibbutz, I remember being very cold and my father sending me money to buy yarn to make an afghan. I so remember going to the Mahane Yehuda and purchasing the yarn and how warm and toasty I was while I was making the blanket and after it was completed. And of course, since it was 1976, the afghan is green, gold and orange. We still have it, and it keeps us warm and cuddly up in Mendocino (we just don't let anyone see it!).
We then wandered down Ben Yehuda Street, admiring the vendors and shops and stopped to have lunch. We finished up the day with Rick following the stations of the cross while I shopped.
You Can Go Home Again
On Friday, I was able to step back in time by spending the day with my Kibbutz family. During my year on Kibbutz, each student was "adopted" by a Kibbutz family. The Sondak's "adopted" me and every day I would spend the afternoon studying, practicing my Hebrew and visiting my family. I was particularly close with my Kibbutz sister, Hagit and with my Kibbutz mother, Shifra. Hagit and her adorable husband, Yoni, picked us up and we spent the day driving around Jerusalem, visiting the Kibbutz and enjoying a meal together in Abu Gosh, a nearby Arab village. I remember always being told not to go beyond the Cow Shed as there was an unfriendly Arab village on the other side. As opposed to Abu Gosh, whose men came to help run the kibbutz during the War of Independence. Such a dichotomy of views and allegiances.
One of the amazing stories of Israel was that of the Bullet Factory. Right before the Israel declared its statehood, it realized that once the British left that they would be attacked. They needed guns and bullets for the war ahead. How to do it with the British watching their every step? They built a "storage facility" under the laundry of a local kibbutz and each day some 40 young folks would descend underneath the laundry and make bullets. Not only did the British not know what they were doing but they gave the Kibbutz all of their laundry to do! During their three years in operation they made over 2 million bullets. Such an amazing story.
Of course, also amazing was the fact that when we arrived at the factory, who do we run into but my cousins from Long Island and London.
It was then on to Mini Israel which has to be the tackiest tourist spot in the country. Saying that it was still fun!
Our last day in Israel was spent with Carol and Dan Karsch. Carol was the previous Executive Director of JCF. It was great to connect and share a few final visits together to the Reut Foundation; the Lod Development organization and the Save a Child's Heart Foundation of the Wolfson Hospital. My head is spinning and I hope to write a reflections piece on the whole experience. But in the meantime, this was truly a trip of a lifetime!
When I lived in Israel from 1976-77, I realized that the country was less than 30 years old, but I didn't realize just how young and new the state was. Coming in to Jerusalem is something just not to be believed. Jerusalem is a top notch, model, metropolitan city. It is just extraordinary.
Our group arrived in Jerusalem in time for the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America's Annual Conference. This Conference takes place in Israel every five years and is hosted in the U.S. in between. The point is to bring issues and trends forward for the leadership and staff of Jewish Federations. There were 3,500 people in attendance which is the largest Israeli GA ever.
The Conference was fun, in that I ran into people who I have known for years. I went to sessions on the economic disparity in Israel which affirmed the fragile situation of Arab Israelis and Haredim (the religious). The focus of this was on education and that the most critical path to decreasing the poverty in the country was through education.
The second session I went to was on Shared Society. What used to be known as co-existence has been reshaped into a discourse on a Shared Society understanding that just co-existing is not really enough, that to really have a strong society there needs to be respectful interaction and joint efforts. I was able to connect with several people on programs that might be of interest to our Grants committee so it was particularly helpful.
By far, the most meaningful experience at the GA for me was the session with Israeli President Shimon Peres. I was so honored to be in his presence. At 90 he is spry and as sharp as a tack. He expressed his hopes and dreams for the country while reflecting on his personal experiences. His story mirrors that of the founding of the state. He is truly extraordinary. I was particularly moved by his statement, "Judaism is not a business, it is a moral vision.."
On Tuesday, we were taken on an incredible tour of Jerusalem. Starting at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, we proceeded then to the Western Wall in the Old City. The religious fervor of the women (and the men) was something to behold. It was very special to be there and to literally feel how the stones had been loved smooth over the years. Since I had been in Israel more archeological digging around the wall had been completed and we were able to walk under the wall to see the walls of the 2nd Temple. It was truly an archeological feat.
From the old tunnel it was on to the footsteps of the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross, following the last steps of Jesus to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was so very proud of our group as each and every one of the Jewish members wanted to make sure that this experience was as meaningful as possible for the non-Jewish members of the group. It was really special for the group as a whole to experience both the Wall and this Church on the same day. As we left the church, the Muslims were being called to prayer. It brought home in a very special way how this amazing city is home to the three major religions.
The church is owned by a Muslim family who has owned it since the 1100's and who has passed it down from generation to generation. The Church has three parts to it, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. They each pay the family to maintain their presence in the church.
The next day it was on the share the Israel Museum, the most spectacular exhibit being that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating back some 2,000 years, these scrolls were found by Bedoin inside caves in the West Bank around 1947. Seeing ancient scrolls that are identical to our torah scrolls just gives one chills.
While most of the group spent the afternoon packing and shopping, Rick and I joined our buddies Susan and Jordan for a trek to Bethlehem. It was a little hairy going through the checkpoints but once we were through, we felt totally safe and enjoyed viewing the city and environs.
After a morning visit to Yad L'Yad (Hand to Hand), an incredible Arab and Israeli public school, Rick and I did our best to invest in the local economy. We went from Mahane Yehuda, an open air market, down Ben Yehuda street and then back to the Old City. There were many highlights of the day- 1) Visiting places I remembered; 2) chatting with people in Hebrew; 3) seeing the variety of people and art and buildings; 4) Enjoying the humor of life; and 5) Rick being offered not just once, but twice, to buy me for 500 camels - as "She is in very good condition."
Leaving the Galilee we headed towards Tel Aviv and pulled in to the brand new Royal Beach Tel Aviv. This hotel is an absolute hoot. It is so modern you really feel as if the Jetsons are going to walk in the door and Rosie the Robot is going to come help you with your ironing. Aside from the fact that you couldn't get out of the chairs once you got in, and that the walls opened up with hidey away cabinets so you couldn't remember where you put what, it was really nice. Oh well except for the shower head.. which once turned on acts like a run away hose and floods the bathroom.. and the color scheme which is cool shades of grey and black making you feel like you are visiting a very expensive prison. Hey I don't have to like everything!!! It was fun staying there and I'm sure youngin's will love it as it is very trendy and cool.. and as we all know I've never been cool a day in my life.
The food was a totally different thing. The hotel's food was delicious and I just loved their cucumber salad. Is that a work of art or what! So since we are on food.. we took a Taste of Israel Tour of Tel Aviv. It was really something- we walked through the streets of Tel Aviv stopping at little shops to taste spices, fruit, new sodas, olives and turkey. The colors and sounds and smells of the city were too amazing for words.
Ok, so you know how there are moments in life that just hit you between the eyes or touch your heart? Here we are wending our way through these tiny streets, crammed with humanity and food and garbage and I see a young Israeli soldier, firearm at his side, walking in to a mini-mart during our tour. He strides into the store absentmindedly kissing the Mezuzah on the door. He wasn't religious, no kippah, and yet it was automatic.
My other moment wandering the streets was seeing a bored street vendor (nobody knows how to look bored like an Israeli street vendor) and he sees an elderly man getting into a cab. He rushes over, helps him get into the cab and then resumes his bored position.
That evening we went to Nagalat, a restaurant that is totally in the dark and where the waiters are blind. They make you put your cell phones and even watches in a lock box during dinner. We were led into a world of darkness, where we had to be led to our chairs and coached on how to pour a glass of water and how to eat. It was an extraordinary experience, not knowing if you were going to taste anything on your fork when you put it in your mouth as you didn't really know if you stabbed any food, learning how to pour water with your finger as a measure so you wouldn't spill. The experience was a gift and we have heightened appreciation for those without sight.
The Serious Stuff
Friday morning, November 8th, we started off with a briefing by Aluf Benn, the Editor in Chief of Ha'aretz, Israel's premier newspaper. The entire group sat there spellbound. I have rarely heard such an amazing presentation. I certainly can not rearticuate what Aluf said, but can share with you my take aways.
He started speaking about Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said that his strengths lie in his ability to project calmness and control. The economy is strong, the shekel is strong and the country is going from strength to strength. He said his weaknesses revolve around the West Bank and Gaza and that he waffles and isn't consistent from one period to the next. He also said that Netanyahu is in a tough position as his coalition party is delicate and he doesn't want to anger the different factions within his own party which might lead to destabilizing the government. Gee.. this sounds familiar doesn't it? Exactly what's going on in the States.
He said that the issue of peace is of much more of a priority to Americans and American Jews than it is to Israelis. They would like peace but it just isn't in their range of expectations any longer. They talk about the latest dialogues for a few minutes and then turn to issues that affect their daily lives.
So what are Israelis concerned with? The two top issues of concern are the economy and the Haredim (the religious community).
The economy is doing very well, but there are still great divides between those with good incomes and those with with minimal wages. One of the ironic unintended consequences of overseas support for Israel is that Americans and other wealthy Jews from around the world come and buy apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, driving up the prices so that it is hard for locals to afford in town homes. The cost of housing is competitive with the more expensive cities in the States.
The issue with the Haredim is complicated. Aluf spoke at length about it and then we went to visit a job training program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or the Joint) where we had a chance to sit with three young Haredi men. I apologize in advance for misinterpreting the situation, if I have.
Side note- All Israeli youth are required to serve in the army, however to date the Haredim have been exempt from serving. Those that do, are given non-combat service, which is sort of like a domestic peace corps. Whereas such programs in the states are run out of non-profits or non-military departments of the government in the US, here in Israel they are run as part of the army.
The Haredim, the religious families, in Israel tend to have large families, 8-10 kids, and their world revolves around family and study of the Torah. They receive a stipend from the government to support this study. The problem is that the stipend can not adequately support the family and there is increasing resentment from non-Haredi Israelis that they are subsidizing the living of those who don't work and who won't serve in the army.
The Haredim want to preserve the old ways and feel that if they interact with secular Jews that they might lose their young people through temptation or that their Judaism might somehow be watered down.
There are those, however, who do not want to live in poverty and who want a better life for their children. The critical problem is that the education that the Haredim receive is not competitive in the Israeli market place as they are not taught English, math and science. There are now efforts afoot to create learning environments where this can be provided for Haredi youth. This is very controversial. Indeed, the three young men we met with disagreed among themselves as to what the best path is.
There are now young Haredi men who do serve in non-combat units in the army, who leave home in the morning and return at night with no one knowing that during the day they are switching out their black coats for an IDF uniform. This provides them pathways to not only skill development but to better jobs on completion of army service.
The whole situation is extraordinary. I can't help but wish that the Haredim would view working within the mainstream of society as an opportunity to share their experiences and bring others closer to Judaism. Separation only creates more separation.
From current days to ancient times.. I leave you with photos from our visit to Petra, Jordan!
I have such magical memories of Tsfat that I was a little nervous when we set out. I remember wandering the streets and truly feeling connected to the great rabbinic sages. It is just as beautiful and magical. It certainly has been built up and is now an artists colony but you can still feel the raging debates that went on among our great scholars. Rav Joseph Caro was one such scholar and his synagogue still stands. You can just imagine what it must have been like to study here the technicalities of different points of law.
We wandered the streets and met with Vared Olney, an artist who was helped to open her gallery in Tsfat through her connection to Tucson. And of course ended up purchasing a piece of art at a nearby gallery.
Next, it was on to explore more of the Northern Galilee. Old friend, Natan Golan, who was the Israeli rep for the San Francisco Jewish Federation when I was the planning director, was our speaker. He brought us to Ma'alot Tarshiha, a joint Jewish-Arab development town. This is an incredible place where Arab and Jewish children attend school together, play sports and have joint activities. The relationship between the communities works incredibly well.
I had been worried that when we came to Israel it would be all modern and that the pioneer spirit that founded the country would be lost. That just couldn't be further from the truth. Over the past numerous days we have visited a number of border towns and communities. You would think that living so near danger would have people moving away from the border, and yet that is just not the case. It is their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.. it is their way of saying we are here and not going anywhere. They have decorated the bomb shelters and developed strategies for the quickest route to the shelters. They sing and play games. The pioneer spirit is alive and well.
Afterward we headed to Hadera to meet with Ethiopian kids in a program that has been developed to help them catch up. It is a terrific program and the kids who participate in the program end up doing well on their exams, going far in the army and getting into college.
I admit our presenters have all been drinking from the same cup of wine. To hear them you would think that Israel is heaven on earth. They admit that there are problems but minimize them in their passion for the country. The problems here are many. The conflicts with Palestinians and Arab neighbors are very real with extremists on both sides being unwilling to bend. Poverty is a problem. The socio-economic gap between generational Israelis and new immigrants is wide. Beside new high rises are crumbling buildings that were thrown up in the 50's to house refugees from the Holocaust. Arguments between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews goes around and around.
And yet, I feel totally at home and love this country more than ever. Seeing a secular Israeli soldier walking into a store and automatically kissing the mezuzah; watching as a bored street vendor drops everything to help an elderly religious man into a cab; you just can't help but feeling part of the fabric of the country. I caught a cab at one point and the cab driver and I had an entire conversation in Hebrew, with him helping me every step of the way. I thanked him profusely and he said, "Ah, we are Jewish, we're family. When are you moving here?"
There is just something so consistently magical about Israel. I love it here.