Thursday, April 8, 2010

An uneasy calm...

"When I capture the image of a playground and a bomb shelter in the same photograph, I understand how what has become acceptable here is unique to the entire world" Noam Bedein
A little over a year ago Sderot was a differnt city. Rockets were falling regularly and the world noticed. Today it is mostly silent, and the world seems to have forgotten. If only the people of Sderot could forget and move on. Sadly the quiet is merely a moment in time, a lull between the last war and the next. A brief moment of respite and preparation while those that wish Israel harm rest and regroup.

The same kind of regrouping is going on in Sderot. I was amazed today at the amount of new construction happening in this quiet period. Sadly all the construction is in preparation for the next round of attacks. Homes are being retrofitted with bomb shelters and safe rooms, playgrounds are being built indoors, schools are being protected. Yet as always it is being done with beauty and grace.

One of our stops today was the Jewish National Fund (JNF) indoor playground. From the outside this building blends in with the industrial buildings around it, but once inside it is another story. What an amazing facility, they have thought of everything. We were given a tour by the manager and wow barely starts to explain the center. There is a climbing wall, rooms for birthday parties, a soccer field, video games, a computer room,a disco, a cafe, places for tea parties and playing house, exercise equipment and so much more. Beyond the fun there is also supportive services, a therapy area and tutoring services.

Placed in the most peaceful place this would be a wonderful center to hang out in and grow up in, but being it is in Sderot the thought that went into its design goes well beyond the interior. The whole building is designed with safety in mind. The roof is think and comprised of 360 tons of steel, every room is hardened and will stand up to the largest Grad rockets. Rooms have multiple enterances and exits to quickly move the over 400 children often there to safe rooms. Not one possible protection has been missed. It as awe enspriing from the architectural and engineering perspective as it is the educational and entertainment view.

After our visit to the playground we went to the Sderot Media Center, where Noam and his staff fight a different battle every day, that of knowledge. This small, 3 year old non profit organization is on the fore front of educating the world on the realities of living 1 mile from Gaza and how the terrorist activity within Gaza impacts the world as a whole.

I knew of Noam's work through Laura and we had spoken on FB, but was glad to finally meet this passionate man, so dedicated to his town and this cause.

For those that have been reading this blog since my last trip, Sderot is not a new topic, it is one dear to my heart and I was so grateful to Laura for helping me go back there today. If you have never heard of Sderot, please read back. If you haven't seen the movie Laura is working on about this amazing city please view her website  and watch the trailer. This is an important piece of cinema and I can't wait for its release. If you are looking for a project to donate to, please consider this non-profit movie!!!!!

It is near and dear to my heart, and I am completely committed to doing all I can to see it gets the funding needed to come to life and help educate the world on the story of Sderot!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Entering Israeli air space

Flying to Israel is different than going anywhere else in the world. There are extra screenings, there are extra restrictions on what can be brought on board and the security is like no other. One of the most unique features is that within Israeli air space you are required to stay in your seat. You can not move around the plane and can not use the restroom. The plane can not land if that security has been broken in the 30 minutes before landing. The crews take this very seriously and enforce it 100%.

For some passengers this is an annoyance, for me it is a moment I look forward to. It means we are close and soon Tel Aviv will come into view. I know my routine, when they give the warning that we are 30 minutes from Israel it is time to change back to street clothes, brush my hair and teeth and pack up all my sleep stuff. It is the sign that I am home!!!!

The pilot just made that precious announcement. I feel that rush of adrenaline I always do. I love that for as often I get to visit lately, it never feels routine or boring. Coming back here still holds the magic and charm and excitement it did on my first trip years ago.

Every time I make this approach it reminds me how grateful I am to those who live in Israel, who defend Israel and who make sure that those of us in the diaspora have this home to come back to!

Am Yisrael Chai!!!!

Heading home again......

Greetings from somewhere over the Atlantic. I can’t believe I am able to head back to Israel so soon after my last trip, it has been barely six months since my last visit. I consider this trip a true blessing and is one I am extremely excited about.

This trip is the first time I have gone to Israel without a formal reason. In the past I either went for a group mission or for a meeting. But this trip is truly pleasure and just about me. I am going to celebrate plums, turning 40 and my new lease on life. And I can’t think of anywhere I would rather have that celebration.

I am also going to visit two very special people in my life, Laura and Irwin. Both of whom were “happy accidents” that have turned into treasured friendships. And it is rather ironic to be visiting them both in Israel of all places.

Laura I met for the first time on my trip to Sderot in February 2009. She is a documentary film maker (if you haven’t seen Refusenik you should btw) who left California to come to Israel to make a film about the lives of the people of Sderot and how living within target range of Gaza has impacted them. In making the film her life took some great twists and she has now married to one of her characters, become an Israeli citizen and is expecting her first child soon. I met her at her home where she was sharing the trailer to the movie.

There was no real reason, other than fate, why we should have ever spoken again after that short visit. But her movie, Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone, so moved me that I maintained contact with her after I returned home. And since then she has visited Minneapolis and we have become friends and she will be the smiling face waiting for me at the airport in Tel Aviv. Isn’t fate wonderful.

Irwin (and his wife Iris) are an even more interesting story for me. Irwin came into my life on probably the worst day of my life. The day I woke up paralyzed on my right side after the botched surgery. He was the nurse assigned to help care for me. Again, that should have been the end of it once I was discharged, but we were brought back together again when I ran into him at the Synagogue I became part of during my conversion. He was a teacher and a member there. Irwin and Iris were there the day I completed my conversion and as I grew in my faith, I spent my first Passover in their home and Irwin taught me much about Israeli history. After I moved from Syracuse I kind of lost touch with them, but through the miracle of Facebook we were able to reconnect last year. When I found them again they had just made Aliyah to Israel and were living outside of Jerusalem. I was able to visit with them on my last visit and they will be there to celebrate my birthday with me this year.

Having these amazing people waiting for me in Israel makes it feel even more like a trip home. This is the first time I don’t feel like I am heading there as a tourist and really am going to where I belong!!!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Moving from "we to wii"...

South Africa, Canada, Israel, the United States, China. Author, mom, business leader, entrepreneur, wine maker, rabbi. Four days ago we had little in common. In our day to day lives we would have moved in very different circles and our paths probably would never have crossed. But this morning we awake with a common mission - to figure out what it means to revolutionize the Jewish world without losing track of our heredity, our history and what it is that makes us uniquely Jewish.

As you read in my previous entries, the first ½ of my trip was focused around the Presidential Conference. Although the theme of the event was “Facing Tomorrow” and the goal was to look to the future of Israel and the Jewish people, the voices were decidedly biased towards those of the past. At times it seemed more like parents bragging about what has been accomplished and day dreaming about what their grandchildren might do than developing a roadmap for the future. The intentions were pure and the speakers amazing, but the call to action for my generation was lacking. It felt like sitting on the outside looking in.

The second ½ of my time here was in stark contrast. I was one of 25 “young” Jewish leaders selected to participate in the “Global World Leaders Forum” sponsored by The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). It is worth mentioning for those who haven’t met me, I am 39 years old. Our group ranged in age from 30-50. To most that would seem far from “young leadership” but in Jewish philanthropic circles we are considered mere babes. To put this in perspective, the current Board of Governors (BOG) of JAFI has 2 people under the age of 50, and probably only a handful under 60. Is this how it should be, definitely not, but it is the current reality. Our mission was and is to change that reality.

Together for three days we were educated, we experienced and we strategized. We were given an inordinate amount of time, access and support from the current JAFI leadership, from the members of the BOG and from the JAFI professionals. We visited with IDF soldiers learning to reconnect to themselves Jewishly, met Ethiopian Olim taking their first steps in Israel, and left our mark on the ground by building a therapy garden for at risk youths. We saw where the Jewish people have come from and where we are going.

In addition to learning about others and the work of the Jewish philanthropic world we also learned about ourselves. As we strived to define our role as the “generation now” we learned we have very different views, goals and ideals. Some were looking for immediate hands on ways to act, others wanted to step back and be part of the bigger picture; some wanted to deal with the Jewish world from a tradition focused point of view, while others were looking for modernity and technology. We had different strengths, different weaknesses, different approaches, different interests. But at the end of the day what we came to stand on is that we have one core value that is what binds us – we want to be heard, we want to be involved, we want to leave our imprint on the future and we want to do this in a uniquely Jewish way.

I have been to these programs before. I have sat through Young Leadership training, I have been on the UJC Young Leadership Cabinet, I have filled the “young leadership seat” within Federations. And I have to admit I am cynical and jaded at this point in these programs. I have heard the rhetoric, I have been invited to the table. But each time it has been with the unspoken intent of being there to do it the “adult’s way”, to continue in the what has always been, to participate but not to change. The words have always said we want to look at the future, but the actions have been otherwise. Suggestions too often met with why we have to do it the way we have always done it.

So why do I feel differently this time? This is going to sound stupid, but it was the look in people’s eyes. In the eyes of my “team mates” I saw a passion and force which will not be extinguished; in the eyes of the JAFI leadership, especially Richie Pearlstone and Natan Sharansky, I saw a realization; and in the eyes of the attendees at the BOG closing plenary I quite honestly saw fear. The third was my “ah ha moment” that this truly was different. We were no longer the scared youth worried if we could fit into our parents and grandparents world, but our parents and grandparents were worried if they could fit into ours. It was the visual confirmation that they were realizing something Jerry Silverman said to us early in our sessions “the current leaders are guests in our century”.

Do I expect this to be an easy road, no. Do I have full confidence the realizations won’t subside and we won’t go back to the status quo, definitely not. And maybe it is the naivativity of supposed youth, the lack of sleep or the 14 year old scotch we shared, but as I look out at my last Jerusalem sunrise I believe that we are standing at a radical moment in Jewish philanthropy. And that unlike times of the past the success of this moment lies in our hands as “emerging” global leaders. It is our chance to grab the baton vs waiting for it to be handed to us. And I for one am ready to run with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bed time stories and fairy tales....

I am exhausted, my first meeting started at 7:30 am this morning and my last one ended at 11:45pm. In between I heard the Prime Minister speak, learned some of the intricacies of rescuing Jews at risk from places like Iran and Yemen, had lunch in the Jerusalem forest and debated the future of Jewish philanthropic life with some great minds and leaders. The biggest risk I felt I was put in all day was riding in the bus we took to a site visit, drivers here make NY drivers look docile. I spent another day in a beautiful country surrounded by amazing people. But despite my exhaustion I feel compelled to write before I fall asleep.

Why? Because I came “home” tonight to a mailbox of worried friends asking me if I am safe and if I am coming home early. I had no clue what they were talking about! I do not want this post to come across as ungrateful, I appreciate people’s concern for my well being. But I am so frustrated, so disappointed, so angry over the way this country is portrayed in the US media.

What my friends were writing about was a skirmish in the Old City near the Western Wall. I didn’t even know it happened until I pulled up the links friends were sending, and I am staying within blocks of that area.

My dear friends, you need to understand that the media has one goal, to make money. They do that by sensationalizing things. What went on at the Kotel was no more news worthy in Israel than the gang fight in Los Angeles today that killed a grandmother was to most of your lives. Would you ever tell people not to come to the US because of that? How many of you are packing up to move to another place because of a stabbing in Florida today?

The US media when it comes to Israel is slanted on its best days. Small, basically irrelevant issues are made to seem like the country is falling apart, that we are all at risk here, that this is a war torn land in chaos. I can tell you nothing is farther from the truth.

Many of us who grew up in the US were raised to believe what we saw on the news as fact, but we learned that from reporters like Walter Cronkite, who reported the news without bias. Today’s media is very different. The news now comes with a healthy dose of agenda and slant. Its goal is to garnish ratings not to inform and educate.

If I haven’t made it clear, I felt just as safe walking through Jerusalem tonight for dinner as I do any night at home, more so to be honest. Please do not let what you see on tv keep you from giving this amazing country a chance, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The hometown of Allah, Adonai and Jesus...

I had intended this entry to be about the relationship between Israel and Jews in the diaspora, but that topic will need to wait. Today is about Jerusalem…

There is a great property to silence, you never really notice it til there is noise. I knew Jerusalem slowed down on Shabbat, but even as I experienced it myself over the last 24 hours I didn’t realize just how much the city changes until it came back to life this evening. It was another gorgeous day here in Israel and I had the doors to the balcony open on my room. I had a wonderful lunch and managed to nap through Havdalah. It was only when I was awoken by horns and street noise that I realized Shabbat had ended. Suddenly the noises of life returned, as if all at once someone had turned the city back on with the flip of a switch. The stark contrast was much more noticeable than the slow decline yesterday when Shabbat approached.

The intensity of Shabbat has not been the only jarring realization for me staying in Jerusalem. The second was how well this city works, and how better off the world would be if we could all learn to function as well as this city does. That comment will probably shock many, the realization shocked me.

As I have mentioned before, most of my previous trips have been based out of Tel Aviv and I had only spent two nights total in Jerusalem prior to this visit. Those stays were back in 2002 during the first infantada.

On that trip we went to the Kotel, we went to Mt Scopus, we walked in the Old City, but other than that we stayed within our hotel. So my experience here was limted.

And as ashamed as I am to admit it, part of me was originally saddened my meetings this time were based out of Jerusalem. For while Jerusalem is the heart of Judaism and a must visit place, Tel Aviv offers the feeling of a modern city as well the breath taking views of the Mediterranean I so crave. In addition to my addiction to the sea, I like many who haven’t spent enough time here wondered about the comfort level of being in Jerusalem.

The city is obviously known as a major point of contention between the major religions of the world and between the populations of this region. I did not worry for my safety, but for my comfort at moving easily around the city. I was completely wrong in my apprehension. As much as I knew better, I too had fallen prey to the media images of rocks being thrown on Temple mount, of youth waving guns and dancing in streets in protest, of burning cars and bombed busses. I had let myself forget the mantra of the press “it if bleeds, it leads”… that the peace and respect that this city normally lives under do not make good tv.

Since being here I have interacted with Jews, Christians and Arabs and not once have I felt out of place, unwelcome or at risk. If anything, just the opposite. This is the most comfortable multi-cultural city I have ever been to. Never once have I felt judged or at risk based on my faith or race. I have felt more tension walking the streets of NYC than I do here. This is a city where from Monday to Thursday the city is a tapestry of all lives, whether it is here at the hotel, in cabs, in stores and restaurants the faces are intermingled. Does it have its flaws, of course, is it perfect, no. But those problems represent the fringe groups and not the majority of Jerusalemites. Most are perfectly content to live side by side with each other, regardless of belief.

The ability of the world’s three major religions to co-exist is only made more remarkable when Thursday ends and the city begins its weekly 3 day transformation. On Friday I noticed that my taxi drivers, the faces at the hotel and those I saw on the streets were different. The Muslim day of gathering was occurring and the rest of the city filled the jobs so the Arab population could fulfill their beliefs. At sundown Friday another metamorphosis occurred, in my hotel I watched the staff change, gone were the kippot and stars of David and the desk clerks and waiters were primarily Arab or Christian. Tonight the Sabbath ended and as the Jewish staff returned those wearing crosses disappeared, readying for their Sunday day of rest.

It is perfect ballet that plays out week after week. A common respect and support to allow everyone their faith and their time to follow the traditions they hold dear. Being here it feels that who should own Jerusalem is more a point of contention for the media and those in power than those who live here, work here and worship here!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In the eye of the beholder...

My day ended exactly where it started, on the hotel balcony overlooking the walls of the Old City. Jerusalem spread out below me. It is amazing all the history in this panorama, so many of the world’s great religions all calling this view home. Yet for all the people who hail from this spot, how many of them ever come and see it for themselves? How many people are stopped from coming and seeing this view because of misconceptions and media?

Explaining my love for Israel to others is a challenge I wrestle with every time I visit here, but this time it seems to be an all consuming thought. I have always shared my experiences here with friends and my Jewish community, but for some reason this trip I feel more compelled to bring back the truth to a greater audience, not sure why. Maybe it is the amazing presentations about Israel’s accomplishments, or the talk of turning crisis into opportunity or maybe it comes from something deeper. I just know that I am stuck on wanting those I hold dear to see this amazing country. I want my friends, Jewish and non-Jews, to be as anxious to see Israel as they are about visiting Paris, Greece or the far east.

But despite my best efforts, I don’t know how to flip that switch for someone else. It frustrates me. I keep searching for the right photo to share, the right words to say to overcome the years of misinformation, but I don’t have them.

As I struggle with the question of how the Israel I see at my feet can be so different from that which much of the world imagines, a phrase keeps circulating in my mind, ”When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child...”

While I am not always aware of it, when I look back I realize that every time I visit here I learn more and more about myself and the world and I move farther away from that thinking like a child. For a child believes unquestioning in that which others tell them. While I have never been one to follow blindly, ever trip here reminds me why it is so important to question, to understand the motives of those telling their stories, to validate with my own eyes that what I feel is what I see. Some would call this skepticism, but in a day and age where information comes at us at warp speed blind faith to cost too much.

A friend asked me a question today, do I fear at all when I am here. I had to stop and think to answer him, but he was right in the point he was making, I don’t fear at all. I feel safer here than I do at many places in the US. I know the same facts as everyone else, I know where risks exist, but I don’t fear for my safety. I feel very safe and protected here.

My dear friends, Israel is not a place to be feared, this is not the country of CNN, Fox News or Katie Couric. But please, don’t blindly take my word for it either…come…stand here for yourself. Share this view with me.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Who needs Moses....

Traveling to the land of milk and honey has never been an easy path. While my current trip didn’t take nearly the 40 years it took the Israelites, the 40 hours it took me to get to this moment in Israel sure felt that way.

My trip went something like this….

6am cst – Alarm clock screams. I get up and take a shower
7am cst – Taxi to airport
9am cst – Flight Minneapolis to Atlanta
2pm est – lunch with friends at Atlanta airport
4pm est – drinks with friends in ATL sky club
8pm est – friends leave and I head for the gate
10pm est – board plane for TLV
10:30pm est – plane’s cargo door damaged, everyone off the plane while they look for another plane and crew

3:30 am est – board replacement plane
5am est – plane leaves gate
5:30 am est – plane returns to gate with engine issue
6am est – plane leaves gate and we finally take off for TLV
10:45pm (4:45pm est) Israeli time – land in Israel
11:30pm Israeli time – arrive in hotel in Jerusalem

5 am Israeli time – writing blog entry waiting for sun to rise over Jerusalem

As I am waiting for the sunrise I just reread the entry I wrote in February as the sun came up over Tel Aviv and wish I could be that profound this morning, but truth be told I am just too tired to be that deep this morning. That sunrise had sleep before it.

But I do have something deep on my mind, friends. Friends around the globe. There are times people will look at my life and think it is empty because I am not married, I do not have children. But it is days like today that remind me that family does not have to come from blood or vows, but through those amazing connections we make as we go through life. And how the digital age allows us to take those friends with us wherever we go.

You will see in my schedule that part of my day in Atlanta was spent with friends. This were my own private “bon voyage party”. This part of my life many don’t understand, because when they hear me talk about them, they don’t hear names like Brian, Nancy, Steven or Jim. They hear “canarsie”, “underpressure”, “scoow” and atldlff. I am part of a very unique community online, known as “flyertalk”. This community is made up of people like myself who travel heavily for work or pleasure, who are plane “geeks” or are involved in the aviation industry. These are the friends who would think nothing of sitting all day watching planes land or flying half way around the globe for lunch.

I have been involved in this community for 5 or so years. Because we all travel so much we often meet up with either other in random locations around the world. Sometimes these events are planned and we all fly to a designate place to meet. Or like today, they are a matter of circumstances…a flyertalker puts out the word they will be somewhere and others join them. To those not travel inclined this group is often seen as an oddity, but for me it has been a source of meeting some dear friends and taking great adventures. And having them there to wish me off, and to provide support online as I sat and waited started my trip off perfectly.

Yet another and developing part of my friendship circle has become Facebook relationships. Ironically it was my last trip to Israel where I first tried FB. It was a technology I had avoided and thought a waste of time. I have since realized how wrong I was. It has allowed me to reconnect with friends, teachers, mentors and to share my life with those I leave behind when I travel. Tonight I was able to have those friends with me on my journey who are thousands of miles away.

Finally there are those friends scattered around the world. I am sooo looking forward to breakfast, not only because I am starving – the flight delay really messed with meal timing - but because after I watch the sunrise this morning, I am going to have breakfast here with a dear friend who has periodically walked in and out of my life. This friend has been there at some of the highest and lowest moments in my life. And while any chance to catch up with him would be treasured, this breakfast holds special meaning. It will be our first together in his new home country, he made Aliyah (moved to Israel) a little over a year ago.

The sky is turning that wonderful blue that happens right before sunrise. To all my dear friends, I wish you Boker Tov (good morning). May you all be healthy, happy and feel as blessed by your lives as I do this morning to have you all in my life!

PS I can’t end this without a thank you to the AMAZING people at Delta airline who worked so hard last night to keep us all fed, comfortable and content while we sat and waited for the second plane. To the crew who stuck around even though they could have bailed, to the crew who got up to fly with us. To the gate agents who got us all reseated in record time. To the mechanics and folks who found and readied the 2nd plane. I have been through a lot of delays and never have I seen the kind of team work and compassion I saw tonight. Great job!!!!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

And All the Fine China

Life is measure in milestones…a first date, a driver’s license, a wedding ring, grandchildren. We segment our memories into before and after. Those key moments define who we are and who we will be. We are never quite the same after as before.

In 2003 I was at one of those pivotal moments in my Jewish life, I was moving from philanthropy on the local level to involvement on the national level. I was starting my time on the Young Leadership Cabinet and as a result became involved with the UJC Network Communities. In looking back I realize that I thought that was the farthest I would ever go, that I had “arrived”. I described a lot of what I was feeling in an article I wrote for the Network newsletter (the following is an excerpt)

“It might have been that rickety old card table your dad dragged in from the garage or the tiny table from the toy room covered in three generations of finger-paint stains. But whatever the furniture, you knew that it meant you were going to be banished to the little kid’s corner yet again. As a child you weren’t sure what it meant to arrive, but you knew that you wanted to be over there with the adults at the big table. You knew that was where the fancy dishes were, where they ate the good food and where the people that mattered sat. You had no doubt you wanted to grow up to fill one of those seats. And there was very little in childhood that could compare with that moment, when you counted the dishes on the table and saw one more than last year, when you heard your mom or dad say “No, this year you are going to sit here with us” and when you sat in that big chair for the first time. Your felt so proud, so special. The whole meal tasted different and you knew YOU were different.

But if this was so important to us as youngsters, why is that there are now so many empty chairs at the big table? The empty seats do not surround a table set with appetizers and entrees, but with history and heredity, with responsibility and promise. They are the tables at our Jewish agencies and federation. They are the tables around which we saw our parents sitting when were tagged along to Super Sunday or where we colored while our parents discussed allocations and campaign goals. These tables were set as gingerly for us and with as much preparation as the Passover settings and the Thanksgiving dishes. Our parent looked at us with that same anticipation that someday we would fill their chairs. But for many of our communities, those seats linger unfilled. At every Jewish program and meeting I attend I hear the same question, “Where is the next generation?”. I hear stories of aging communities clamoring for young leadership.

The good news is that across our country there are many dedicated, talented, intelligent, engaged young Jewish leaders who are taking their seats and heeding the call. Last month I sat around the “big table” with 300 of the amazing young women of UJC’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. I can tell you our future is in very capable hands, with people ready and willing to assume responsibility. And I believe that this group represents just the tip of the available pool of young Jewish leaders.”

This week I stand on the precipice of another one of those life changing events, and again I find myself again awestruck, both at where I came from and where I am going. I still remember my first Federation event, my first local committee participation (Israel at 50), my first UJC event (it was UJA back then and the event was a Young Leadership Regional Conference in Boston), my first days on Cabinet and my first meeting with the Executive Committee for the Network. Every time I had that same feeling I am having right now. How did I get here? Do I have the right to be here? And more than anything, WOW, how’d that happen! Each time I find myself surrounded by those people I have looked up to and admired for many years and it makes me speechless to be seated at the table shoulder to shoulder with my Jewish heroes.

This upcoming week I will take that next step, participation at an international level. I will be attending two outstanding conferences with some of the greatest hearts and minds of our time.

The Israeli Presidential Conference will bring together heads of state, corporate giants, great thinkers and extraordinary givers. And somewhere in the middle of that will be me, the person with their jaw on the ground wondering…How did I get here? I am sure the people I have thanked over and over again for allowing me to be part of this think I have lost it, but I am so honored and awestruck at the chance to interact with these people, to hear what they have to say and to have a front row seat for watching the future of the world unfold.

The second meeting, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) Emerging World Leaders Forum, was the reason I originally booked this trip. This will be my chance to truly give back to Jews around the world. This program is designed to help those of us in the “next generation” begin to develop a plan for our participation as leaders in our Jewish communities and around the world. Obviously this is not my first young leadership event, but I still find myself wondering...they want me? The caliber of the international list of participants is unbelievable. Already as young adults the people I will be working with are at the top of their industries, organizations and governments. My accomplishments seem small in comparison. Yet somehow I am about to become a peer of this group. What were they thinking? And am I ready to carry this mantle? Will I make those who came before me proud?

This last question is always the biggest one for me, will I make those who came before me proud? Those who know me well know I was not born Jewish, I do not have a single ancestor from whom I can trace my Jewish heritage. In the literal sense, there are none who came before me. Yet despite the lack of blood or DNA, I do have a long lineage of people who came before me, those who I owe so much to and those whom I carry with me as I take this next step. I spoke earlier of my Jewish heroes. My greatest Jewish heroes are not the great minds you will find in text books or on the evening news. They are the everyday heroes who prepared me for this journey. Their names to many to list here. But they are the people who taught me, who welcomed me to the table at events I wasn’t really ready for, who gave me my Hebrew name, who shared their holidays and traditions with me so I could learn what it meant to be Jewish. These are the people I hope to make proud as I take my seat at the table! They are the people who helped me define who I am as a Jew, as a Jewish leader and who I will become.

I thought when I started writing this post I didn’t have the words to express how I feel about what I am about to take on, I just realized I do have the word…it is GRATEFUL. Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, encouraged me and saw more in me than I did in myself. Thank you for giving me the chances and opportunities that have brought me to this moment. I promise to do you proud and continue the heritage you helped me build! And I’ll try to do it without spilling the water pitcher or dropping my fork *smile*.

Friday, September 25, 2009

24 days, 10 minutes and One Dollar

My next trip to Israel is just over the horizon. The reservations are made, I have prepared my clients and colleagues for covering while I am gone and I am starting to feel that same mix of excitement and nerves that I always feel on these trips.

This trip is going to take on a much different feel than my trip in February. While that trip was short, 3 days, this is the longest I will have spent in Israel – 10 days. While the last trip was very small and private with great one-on-one experiences, this trip will have a world focus as I participate in the Israeli Presidential Conference ( and the JAFI Emerging World Leaders Forum. While the last trip was feet on the ground and heart tugging– this trip will be focused at a more tactical level – this is a trip to develop action and intellect.

But despite the differences, it seems no matter what the duration or focus of my Israel trips, each one has a significant moment that kicks it off. Something that starts that divide between the every day of my life in the US and the sacredness of my time in Israel. My last trip it was my stop in Omaha, this trip it arrived in the mail.

This evening after a long week of travel I was sorting through my pile of mail and came across a letter from our Federation office. I kind of tossed it aside for later, thinking it was something related to Super Sunday recruitment (which I am chairing), or a statement for next years donation or whatever. I went about checking my email and catching up on my day, but that envelope kept calling to me. Finally I gave in and opened it.

Inside the envelope I found a letter from our Federation Campaign Director, Mort – a dear man I am just getting to know and value – and a crisp one dollar bill. As I read the letter I felt my eyes well up with joy, I knew that moment had arrived.

“Dear Pam,

Just wanted to take the opportunity to wish you an incredible journey on your upcoming trip to Israel.

We have a tradition that when someone travels to Israel, we give the person one dollar…for Mazal! It is a dollar for Tzedakah or charity. It means that the carrier of the dollar will have a good journey, and when you are in Israel, you can give the dollar to someone on the street who is in need or at a site that you are visiting.

I want to wish you a wonderful trip and I am anxious to hear all about it on your return.

As they say in Hebrew – L’Hitraut – safe journey, see you soon…bon voyage!


And with those words, I know my trip has truly begun.

Edited to add: I have received multiple emails since posting this entry asking if others could send something with me to Israel to be given away while I am there. OF COURSE! I am leaving on 10/18, anything I have received by then will go with me! Thank you to all the wonderful people in my life who are always looking for ways to help others.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On Duty...

Keeping this blog updated has not been a great success for me, my goal is to post something every Shabbat, but time seems to fly and other things get in the way. But sometimes fate is a stronger motivator than the day on a calendar so here I am again.

Although Israel may not be where my time is put these days, it is still seems to find me, often in the strangest ways and places…this was one of those weeks. I was on a business trip in Chicago and after finishing my last meeting I grabbed a cab for the airport. There was nothing special about this cab that made me select it….right time, right place, nothing more, one amongst millions, or so I thought.

Due to an injury to my leg this week, I opted to sit in the front seat of the cab, which increased the chance I would have to chat with the driver. I have to admit this is not usually something I enjoy, making small talk with a stranger. I have very little time alone and when I am in a cab or on a plane, I just like to decompress. So I wasn’t overly happy when he started talking.

The first thing I noticed was his wonderful accent, obviously middle eastern. He mentioned moving here from Kuwait during the first gulf war, I assumed his country of origin. But as the conversation developed it became clear that wasn’t the case, so I asked where he was born….Palestine.

The answer left me speechless for a moment. This is one response that I never know how to respond to. Whenever I learn someone is from Palestine I find myself torn. Do I discuss it? Do I dance around it? Do I mention being Jewish? Do I mention my trips to Israel? Do I change the topic completely?

I am not sure why I have such a weird reaction. It is definitely not a prejudice, I have friends from Palestine who I greatly value. I guess part of my reaction has to do with the fear of THEIR reaction. Will this become a hostile conversation? Will the situation become uncomfortable? Am I opening a can of worms I should keep closed?

But for some reason I decided to take the risk, this was obviously a well educated man, I later learned that he had a Masters Degree from Hebrew University, and I thought the conversation would be interesting. It was and more.

We spent our next 40 minutes dodging the Chicago traffic and discussing the problems with Hamas and Hezbollah, the problems with the Israeli Government, the last 70 years of conflict in the middle east, the role of the US in it all and so much more. We discussed each of our views for a solution, and our agreement that as sad as it is there may never be a true solution. It was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating conversations I have had about the middle east.

Out of all the topics, what surprised me most though, was his view that a one state solution was better than a two state solution. His point of view, which now makes sense, but had never crossed my mind, was the fear the Palestinian people have of being left alone under the control of the PLO or Hamas. That while their quality of life is poor now, that many of their services that are sustaining them would be lost to them if two states were created and that this scares them, many fear for their lives if two states are created. They do not trust that their own government will be there for them.

I have always known on an intellectual level that Israel was providing much of their services, and have always viewed that through my “why should Israel take care of these people, they want to be their own state, we started at zero and created a society from the ground up” lens, but had never gone to the next level of the void that might never be filled in people’s lives.

It is a horrible thought, people being left abandoned, but is that our problem??? As Jews we are taught we are responsible for each other, for our community, but where does that line of responsibility extend to. How far is our community? Is it our responsibility to take care of those who wish us harm or whom helping might put us at continued risk? Should we consider a one state solution that in the end would dictate Israel losing its basis as a Jewish state but might provide the most safety for the Palestinian people. Just where are those lines? And who chooses them?

I am a conservative, I feel that the first step is people standing up and helping themselves before the government runs in and saves them, I struggle every day when I turn on the news and hear more about bailouts and enabling bad behavior, both here in the US and around the world. But for as much as I would like to say the Palestinians need to figure it out and start building their own infrastructure, like the Israeli pioneers did, but it is hard to think about the cab driver’s mother who still lives in Palestine and can’t get to the doctors she needs because they are in Israel and not want to solve the problem.

I don’t know the answers, people smarter and greater than me don’t know the answers, but I have to think if more cab ride conversations could happen it would be the first step. It all seemed so easy inside that car. We were two human beings, who geography and history dictate should fear each other, who should have to take “sides”, but nothing was farther from the truth.

As we reached the airport I regretted the conversation would end, but it did. We said our good byes, we shook hands, thanked each other for how civil the discussion was (that surprised us both I think) and acknowledged that the greatest irony in the whole situation is that we (Jews and Palestinians) are the two most alike groups in the world. We are both people who the world has thrown away multiple times, who are just looking for somewhere to call home, to feel safe and to not live in fear of our own extinction. And maybe there in lies the solution we are all struggling so hard for. That the first step is just admitting that our fear of facing that what we most dislike in our “enemy” is how much like ourselves they truly are!!!

Shabbat Shalom.

PS… An update on my next trip to Israel, call it a miracle, fate, divine intervention or coincidence, but the meeting in June that I was struggling to make work, has been moved to October. So I am planning 10 days in Israel this fall. I can’t wait. My trip in February seems a million years ago. I need to recharge that flame again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Letter to My Friends....

I have rewritten this letter multiple times, I can’t seem to find the right mix of what I want to say, without it sounding so overly sappy, but I can’t delay any longer sending it, every day we wait is another day we aren’t helping, so please bear with me through the mush.

A little over a month ago I stood in Sderot and Ashkelon, shoulder to shoulder, with 14 other young Jewish American leaders. We witnessed the best and the worst the world has to offer coexisting in ways that are hard to believe until you see them for yourself. And even after you see them it still is hard to comprehend. For me this was a life altering trip that I have had a very hard time leaving behind. Since returning to the states there is hardly a day that goes by where I don’t think of the people we met and what they endure daily. I have struggled to make sense of it all. I have searched for ways to renew my commitment to them, to not have let my visit be just a moment in time without true meaning.

Needless to say when I heard on March 2nd that a Quassam had hit the Amit School in Ashkelon my heart sank. I needed to help. I needed for my trip to have been more than a great trip without a true purpose. I immediately wrote to Liat from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), who I met on our trip, asking for details and information on how I could help. Her response brought more tears, but also a sense of relief that I COULD help. It was the first time since we returned that I didn’t feel helpless. There was finally a call to action…a way to convert feeling to service.

Here is her message….

“Sent: Mon, 9 Mar 2009 5:03 amSubject: RE: Ashkelon

Hi Pamela,
The most up to date information that I have gathered is the following:

The damage we are discussing happened in the Amit High School (grades 9th-12th). This school serves a special population of kids that are not able to learn in the "regular" high school in their area. There are 197 students in this school. Since the Hannukah break the school hasn't functioned regularly. At first because of the Operation Cast Lead and then again, due to the recent rocket which fell on the school. The school feels pressured as many of these students need to prepare for the matriculation exams which usually take place in the summer months. This particular group of students usually receives extra preparation hours; however, at this point in time, this seems almost impossible.

One of their main components in the Matriculation exams is the exam in Technology. Success in this exam requires the intensive use and preparation with computers. As other areas in the building have been damaged, the computer lab was destroyed with the landing of the recent kassam missile. The lab consisted of 26 computer stations, including all the additional equipment such as keyboards, printers, software, projectors, screens etc. Of course we also had damage to furniture such as tables and chairs.

This subject is a huge concern of the school administration and is eager to rehabilitate and return the students to their usual framework. The approximate costing for everything that is mentioned above stands at $35,000.

If you need additional information, please write and I will gather it for you as well.

Any assistance you and your friends can provide, will be appreciated so much by so many!

Hag Purim Sameach, Liat”

As I read it, I knew, I needed to help!!! This is where a difference can be made. This is where I turn to all of you, my friends, some who have been to Israel, some who haven’t. Some who understand why this tugs at my heart and some who are trying to. But regardless of whether you have been to Israel or not, you are the people with the biggest hearts I know.

I am sharing this story KNOWING this is a challenging year financially for everyone. We have lost investments, our homes have dropped in value, we have to do more with less. But on our worst days we have so much more than those of Southern Israel. And that is why we need to help. Will any of you join me in helping rebuild the school? Will you help me in turning the words we spoke on our trip in February into actions?

Every small amount given matters, please consider giving no matter how little you feel your donation is. While our goal is the money, our giving is as much about showing support as it is the financial. And every dollar is a reminder that these students have not been forgotten.

All donations to this cause will go through United Jewish Communities (not through me personally) and directed to JAFI and will be tax deductible. 100% of what is raised will go directly to this project and will help rebuild the school.

Donations should be sent directly to UJC using the information below, but I would love to know where we are on this projects, so if you would like to also send me a note at I would appreciate it.

Please send donations via:

Itzik Shavit, Senior VP
United Jewish Communities
P.O. Box 30
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10113

on the memo line please mark your check “UJC/Amit school Ashkelon” so that it is directed correctly.

I will most likely be back in Israel in mid-June and am hoping to visit the school in person. Please help me stand there and tell them we were there for them, that we heard their cries and responded.

Hopeful to make a difference,

Pamela M. Ingram, UJC National Young Leadership Cabinet Alumni

PS…Please feel free to share this letter with anyone else you feel would be interested.

For more information on the school and the rocket damage:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

If not now....when?

When I got back from Israel I couldn’t wait to talk about my trip. Most of my friends wanted to hear about the places and the people we met. Some were even brave enough to look at all the pictures I took, all 241 of them! But the questions were pretty routine – who, what, where, why, when and how.

They were standard vacation questions, until I talked to Rhea. Rhea is a valued friend and a Jewish professional who I genuinely love and respect. Rhea is cards up on the table, cut to the chase, and we have amazing conversations about life and the Jewish world. In true Rhea style her first question wasn’t about what I saw or what I felt, Rhea went right for the jugular, and asked me the one question I couldn’t answer. Why now? Why this mission? Why this moment in my life? She took me to the place I needed to go, before I knew I needed to go there.

Rhea and I have talked about many mission trips over the years, often I have looked at the itineraries, pondered going on another one, but for some reason they never quite fit. It might have been work, it might have been the cost, it might have been other commitments. So why when this email came why did I drop everything and go? I stumbled to give her an answer…it worked out schedule wise, my colleagues were will to cover my clients, it was a short mission, I had the funds. They were lame answers and I think Rhea knew that. She knew before she asked the question there was more to this, that was why as a friend she was asking.

I have spent almost a month now searching for that answer and think I am finally beginning to understand what was different. And in finding that answer am realizing not only why I went, but why I can't let go of my time there like I have on past trips. Why a month later I am still talking about it, looking for ways to continue sharing the experience, looking for ways to make a difference both locally and in Israel. I am starting to understand why a plane overhead still makes me shake, why I wonder more about Yossi than I do people I have known for years, why every time I hear that another rocket has hit Sderot my heart breaks again, why when I read last Sunday of a school in Ashkelon damaged by a grad missile I was ready to check flight schedules and head to help.

I now have your answer Rhea…the difference was that this mission, both in its design and in my goals, was not about being IN Israel, but being WITH Israel! It wasn’t about going and seeing Sderot…it was about embracing the citizens of Sderot. It wasn’t about admiring the refurbished playground at Nitzan…it was about understanding the meaning of the playground in the lives of the children there. It wasn’t about the trees we planted at Moshav Yachini…it was about us now being part of the same land that the founders of Israel cultivated 60 years ago.

In the end this trip wasn’t about me seeing Southern Israel and the situation there…it was about Southern Israel becoming part of me, part of my heart, part of consciousness. It was about me learning what true sacrifice means, what truly standing up for something you believe in is all about and about standing your ground against all odds when you know what you are doing matters.

It ends up being a much simpler answer than any I was struggling for….I can’t let go of what I was part of in for 2 days in Israel, because it is now part of me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Alphabet Soup

Thank you to one of my readers who pointed out my thoughtless use of “Jewish Alphabet Soup” in my posts, I apologize. These terms have been part of my life for so long I forget they aren’t the norm for everyone, Jewish or not. So let me try to break down some of the “buzz words” from my posts.

UJC (– United Jewish Communities (previously UJA or United Jewish Appeal to those who have been around Jewish philanthropy for a while). UJC was once described to me as “the United Way of the Jewish world”. UJC is the major Jewish fund raising organization in the United States. UJC raises over $1 BILLION dollars a year and uses that money to help people in the US, Israel and 60 other countries around the world.

UJC raises most of its funds through local Jewish Federations. Federations are the community based arms of the Jewish philanthropic world. Most intermediate to large size communities have a Federation, which manages local fund raising and needs. For those communities too small for their own Federation UJC has a program called “The Network Independent Communities” or “The Network”, which helps support and work with these communities and keep them tied into the UJC world (

Federations keep some of the money they raise in their own communities, for local needs, and the rest is collected into UJC national where it is distributed to needs around the world.

National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC) – In most Federations there are local Young Leadership programs, helping develop the next generation of leaders in the Jewish community. These organizations provide social, education and networking opportunities for growth of those aged 20-45. The “cabinet” represents the cream of the crop of these leaders and helps them develop their skills nationally and internationally. Cabinet was started for men in 1959 and a woman’s cabinet was started in 1976. At any one time there are about 400 young men and women serving on cabinet. To be part of cabinet means making a 4-6 year commitment to serve as speakers, solicitors, mission leaders, trainers and consultants throughout the United States and Canada. They assist communities in all aspects of campaign and help create and run national programs, aimed at educating and developing future Jewish leaders. In addition to a time and effort commitment, cabinet members also make a financial commitment to give to the needs around the world. Our trip was comprised mostly by current members or Alumni like myself, as well as some prospective cabinet members.

JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel or the Jewish Agency and JDC (The Joint Distribution Committee are two of the main ways that money raised via UJC and the Federations reaches those around the world in need. Their role is to help identify the major needs and to help implement the programs. They are the feet on ground, hands on, day to day managers of the programs in Israel and around the world where there are needs. They make sure that the money raised in the US is put to good use. They are our stewards and our face to the people we help.


It is really important that I point out some of the misconceptions of UJC, Federations and the partner agencies.

Myth 1 - They only care about Jews. This is not the case. These agencies provide help where help is needed, and often it goes to communities, here and abroad, for initiatives that impact all the citizens in the area. In the US major aid was given post 9/11 and post Katrina for example to help people get back on their feet. In Sderot the trauma center is supporting all the citizens of Sderot, regardless of religious or national affiliation. The requirements are a need not a nationality. Yes the focus is on the Jewish world and Israel, and the majority of the funds come from the Jewish world, needs are met without restriction.

Myth 2 - That by giving to these agencies you are supporting war or politics. These organizations are not government backers, military agencies or political parties. UJC, Federations and the partner agencies are humanitarian organizations. Money given to these organizations provides food, shelter, emotional support and life enrichment. It is not funding weapons or wars.

Myth 3 - Only Jews can give to these organizations. Just as the needs are universal, so are the donors. Any of these organizations will welcome gifts from any person or organization, regardless of religious affiliation or nationality.

I am incredibly proud to belong to these organization, especially of having served on Cabinet, and proud to know that I am doing what I can to live a life that matters and makes a difference. I know that these are not the right organizations for everyone, but I do hope if you take nothing else from my trip it is that we all need to be a part of the solution. If these aren’t the agencies for you, please google other ways to help, either in Israel or around the world.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Please stow your tray tables and bring your seats to an upright position

“Welcome to Altanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport, the local time is 5:37 am”. With those words I am thrown back into reality, our trip is really over. I cling to the last couple announcements in Hebrew, knowing it will be a long time before I hear it again. I have no idea ½ of what is being said, but I want the flight attendant to keep talking anyway. Yosi was right, it IS harder leaving than staying!

Israel is so hard to explain to those who have never been there, whose only view is through CNN or the Washington Post. There is an energy in Israel that we don’t have here in the US, an electricity that comes with not only truly appreciating where you live, but fearing for its existence. Even on our worst days post 9/11 I don’t think any of us considered, even for a second, a world where the US didn’t exist, it is impossible. But for Israelis that is a real unspoken possibility they keep tucked away in their heads and hearts. The existence of Israel is not something they, or any of us, can take for granted.

Don’t get me wrong Israel is far from perfect. My taxicab driver said it best on the way to the airport as he was sharing his dreams of living in America, “Its hard living with a bunch of Jews”. And he is right, we ARE many of our stereotypes…we are loud, passionate, hard headed and opinionated. But we make that work. That passion and tenacity is what has sustained us through many hardships and it is what keeps us all committed to the state of Israel, to the dream of a homeland, to our belief that someday peace will come. Being a part of that energy is not something you easily want to let go of.

I have a wonderful life here in America, great friends, the job of a lifetime. I have a great life and I should be excited to jump back into it, but I feel drained, like a life force that has driven me the last few days is gone. I am not ready to make the jump back across that divide from the sacred to the secular, from the exceptional to the mundane.

Since arriving home this morning multiple people have said, I am glad you made it back in one piece. I have silently laughed each time I have heard it. They don’t realize how wrong they are. Yes I am home safe and intact…but a large piece of my heart is missing, I left it behind in Eretz Israel!!

Ice Cream and F-16's

Four days ago I came to Israel not sure how any one could live like this, constantly worrying about missiles and suicide bombings. I felt bad for the people living here, but as we were told in Sderot, you can’t get it til you are here.

My trip is about to end almost exactly as it started, overlooking the gorgeous blue of the Mediterranean from my hotel room. I am still seeing the mosque and the dolphinarium, the picture is the same but the view is completely different. I am different. I see the world through new filters. What seemed important, like a big deal 48 hours ago now seems so unimportant. Problems we have at home seem so small comparably. This trip has changed me.

As much as being here has shown me how hard this life is, I also feel like I have come one small step closer to understanding how people can live like this on a daily basis and thrive. When we started out on Monday morning many of us were kind of chilled by the security briefing and emergency drill we went through to prepare for the day. While I had had no hesitation at all in coming to Israel, I have to admit the severity with which our leaders warned us did give me pause. I wondered for a moment what I had gotten into, was the risk greater than I had given value to and was this a mistake. They gave us an out after the briefing, the chance to change our minds, I am so glad I didn’t take it.

At that moment I would never have believed that a mere 30 hours later we would be laughing and joking while eating ice cream a few yards from where a grad rocket had landed that morning, but we were. For as unsettling as this area is, you also find normalcy in the abnormal very quickly. At first it seemed strange that so many of our meetings were held in reinforced rooms, that bomb shelters dotted the landscape and no one but us seemed to notice them, but today in Tel Aviv the scenery almost seems naked without them. Their quiet comfort of safety within 15 seconds makes sense now and their absence is eerie.

Noises have also changed. I hear a plane overhead and wait for the artillery fire, its going to take me a while to remember that sometimes a plane is just a plane. A cell phone ringing or a public announcement and I tense. There is no need to scan faces anymore, like I learned to in Sderot and Ashkelon, to try and decipher what our security guard Odet was hearing on the phone. If we needed to prime for action. It’s going to take some time to relax.

It is also going to take some time to learn to be alone again. It seems strange to not be around those I have shared this experience with. On January 31st many of the 20 of us were strangers, UJC is a large organization and it is hard to know more than a few people well, but by February 3rd we were family. We had shared moments and experiences that only we can understand. Dr. Katz at the trauma center in Sderot had a great term for it, “shared reality”.

That is what we have, a shared reality. We have parts of the story that no one else has heard, we have seen things no one else has seen, and that common bond forever unites us (as well as does Facebook *smile*).

B'yachad (Together)

Our trip was not about politics or military strategies or even about who is right or wrong in all this mess. We were there to provide friendship and support to the people who are living with the outcomes. I can’t tell you of all the people we interacted with how many were Israeli Jews and how many were Israeli Non-Jews. That wasn’t the point either. They are Israelis, they are living under tough conditions and that is all that matters.

But with that said, I would be remiss if I left out our experience with the young IDF soldiers. Our final dinner was with a group of officers who had just returned from Operation Cast Lead. My first impression, they are too young to be soldiers. But once they started to talk, again, I heard wisdom beyond years.

These young men and women knew more about being human than they did about shooting guns. It was they who reminded us of the large difference between the Palestinians (who they referred to as “our neighbors”) and the enemy which is Hamas. They spoke with true sympathy for those living in the Gaza strip who merely want the same peace and security the Israelis want, but who are sabotaged in that goal daily by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. They spoke of going ahead to warn the citizens prior to an attack, and of having to beg some to leave, just to save their lives. How guilty they felt in having to overturn crops to be able to stay safe and see the enemy.

They spoke with total conviction when they asked us to remind the world “We did not go into Gaza to fight the people who live there, we went in there to stop the missiles from reigning down on our families”.

In the end THAT was what this trip was about, that is what this war is about, about the innocent people whose lives are in danger daily. There are those who will say, but what about the Palestinians who are in danger. I can say with total conviction, I really hope their country, the people of their faith from other nations are doing the same for them that I hope we were able to do in our 48 hours in Israel. This is not a matter of faith, of nation or of right or wrong, it is about humans being there for each other.

As Lee Pearlman told us as we were leaving, its about B’Yachad…being together!

And Still They Come

“You’re going WHERE? Have you lost your mind”. When I told people I was flying to Israel mere days after the current round of fighting started the reaction was nearly unanimous. Spoken or unspoken the choice made little sense to most. Imagine if instead I had announced I was moving to Israel? My friends probably would have tried to have me committed. Yet there are many who do make that choice and make Aliyah and move permanently to Israel. They come for many reasons…

To better their hearts

The Calinit Absorption center in Ashkelon looks pretty much like any other college dorm around the world, as long as you can ignore the bomb proofing on the workout and computer rooms. The program, subsidized by the Jewish Agency, houses 150 young students who have opted to move to Israel, to finish their college education and begin their adult lives. They come from points around the globe, including Argentina, Russia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. They speak some broken English and their native tongue, but their first task upon arriving is to learn Hebrew and after a couple months they do it better than I ever could. As they sit together, it is hard to believe they have come from different lands, they clearly share a bond. A bond in knowing they have made a great choice in their life.

They come here by choice, and while speaking to them they make it sound like such a easy choice, they are making a huge commitment. This is not a decision made by impulsive teens hoping to have it easy somewhere away from their parents. The commitment they are making involves not only moving away from family, friends and the life they have known and starting over in a new country, but doing it in a country and city in turmoil. For some of the students we are having lunch with they had only been in Israel a few months when the fighting escalated and the rockets started falling daily on Ashkelon. And yet they tell us with total clarity how happy they are to be in here. How they fell in love with the country and are happy to be here to support Israel and each other. Many first came to visit on a Birthright trip, fell in love with the people and the country and are now back permanently. Others came because their own countries didn’t offer the freedom or safety (rather ironic) they could find in Israel and are here for the first time.

Regardless of why they came, they are wise beyond their years. They know their role in Israel, in helping to keep the country strong. Beyond helping build the next generation of Israel, the male students also speak with great enthusiasm about the time they will spend in the IDF, a requirement of coming. They view this as their chance to give back to the country that they feel is giving them so much. And they do it totally aware of the dangers around them.

To better their country

The students of the Ayalim village in Moshav Yachini are looking to learn and to give, in ways their fore fathers did. They have come to the southern regions of Israel not only to get an education, but also to become part of the fabric of the area.

As they explain to us over dinner, they felt life had a void. They had been involved as youngsters, they had done their time in the IDF but then there was nothing, no way to give back. Yes they could have gone on and gotten married, started their careers and their lives, but they wanted more. They wanted a way to give instead of take. The Ayalim program lets them do that.

In addition to their studies these modern pioneers are helping build communities and farm the Negev. This alone would have been enough, but they are also playing a role in assisting the residents in the missile ridden communities around them. They work with the children in the communities providing friendship and much needed distractions from war, they help with rebuilding efforts and assist in places like the Sderot Trauma Center. Recently when the attacks were at their worst they provided extra hands to help in taking children out of the area for a day of respite at zoos, the mini-Israel museum and other child friendly areas.

In a time when life in Israel seems so to make so little sense, these young adults are carving out a place for themselves by assisting those around them.

To better their lives

Since 1977 Ethiopian Jews have been assisted in returning to Israel to escape the hardships and mistreatments they must endure in their homeland. In addition to famine and droughts, life in Ethiopia for Jews is one of an outsider at its best. Practice of their faith is prevented and at times has been outlawed. The largest of these efforts were Operation Moses in 1984 & 1985 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Since these major efforts the numbers have slowed but the remaining Ethiopian Jews are still coming, assisted by JAFI and the Israeli government.

Assimilating to life in Israel has been a hard road for these Olim. Not only are there language and cultural differences, but also the challenges of moving from the under developed to the developed world. They must learn the simplest daily tasks that we take for granted, like having a checkbook and shopping for clothes. Moving to Israel is not just changing lives for them, it is changing worlds.

Twenty five years has passed since Operation Moses, and the first generations of Israeli born Ethiopian Jews are now teens and young adults. This group, and the teens still coming, face a unique challenge, maintaining their heritage and culture while living in modern Israel. The Ethiopian National Program and UJC help provide centers and support to fill in that gap. It keeps the youth in touch with each other and also their heritage. This heritage was shared with us as we took part in a Buna coffee ceremony and learned traditional dance.

Holding tight to their cultural ways of coping with stress are more important now than ever, especially for those living in southern Israel. As the Ethiopian-Israeli youth explained to us, the ceremony is about a lot more than drinking the coffee. Preparing the beans and the coffee is a relaxer for them, the smells, the colors, it all is a safe place for them. It is a way of being together and facing their current realities. While the lives of these teens in Israel far outweighs the opportunities they had in Ethiopia, they still find great solace in sharing their culture with their new friends.

Coming to Israel may not seem to some the wisest choice, but for many whether the stay is 48 hours or a life time, coming to Israel is a life changing choice. Even at a time when Israel is not the safest place on the planet it is still a welcoming, wonderful place to be.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

No casualities reported….

The day ended Monday with Tzeva Adom warnings in Sderot and at the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council and Tuesday started with a grad rocket landing in Ashkelon. In between heavy artillery impacts can be felt periodically and numerous F-16’s are heard over head. Life in the southern regions of Israel is hard and unpredictable.

The newspapers report that there were no causalities or injuries resulting from the rocket this morning because no blood was shed, but the reality is that everyone here is a causality. The psyche of every resident is injured over and over again. You can’t be here without it impacting you. We have only been here two days and we jump at the ringing of a cell phone, we look to the sky with every plane wondering if the alarms will sound. How long until the next rocket or mortar?

This is a very hard place to live. I thought two days ago I would love to move to Israel, now I am not so sure. I am not sure I could be this strong.

I stand in the home of a man whose home took a direct hit two weeks ago from a grad missle. It looks so much like my own it takes my breath away.

At the time of the attack Yosi’s three children were home alone. He arrived home to the scene of fire fighters and police trying to rescuing his family. His neighbors homes still bear the scars of the shrapnel. The home is surrounded by scaffolding and draped in plastic, but in two weeks through the help of JAFI and the Israeli government, Yosi’s home will be as if the attack never happened. It is important to the people here that the area not look like a war zone, repairs are started within moments of an attack. His home will be completely healed, but what about his heart? What about his children’s minds? It’s a hard place to live, but Yosi scoffs when we ask him why he stays, our question confuses him as much as his staying does us. Leaving is not something he considers. He, like his neighbors, don’t have a second thought about their lives here, leaving is not an option or a thought for them. This is their home, they will not be driven out, they are committed to their lives, their communities and their country. They don’t care it is hard, leaving would be harder.