A Letter to Israel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Elizabeth Schuman

Dear Israel,

Everything I know about you, I know secondhand. I know that you are a country swirling with vibrant colors and cultures, where spirituality rubs elbows with technology. I know that you are country filled with passion, a sabra mentality of tough encasing soft. I know your history, born from the fires of the Holocaust.

Everything I know about you, Israel, I know secondhand.

I talk to people about you. They always pause, gathering their thoughts to answer the collective question: Where to begin? And their stories always, always, always come back to family and identity.

Debbie Attman told me about her first visit to Israel. Last year, she went on a Heart to Heart mission with The Associated. She is forever grateful. “My parents told me to visit Israel. I didn’t listen then,” she says. “The minute I stepped off the plane, I felt my parents’ arms around me.

“Everyone is so proud to be Jewish, it’s so comfortable,” she says. She remembers Shabbat in Jerusalem, unlike any Shabbat she knew before. Everywhere she turned, she connected. “I got it. I got what they were talking about. I got what it means to be Jewish.”

Debbie’s daughter joined her on the trip. The family is returning this spring, for her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. “My parents would be overjoyed to know that their great-grandson is marking his Bar Mitzvah in Israel.”

Everything I know about you, Israel, I know secondhand.

I know that you have repeat customers. Until recently, I never understood why someone would go back … especially with a world of places to discover. What I’ve learned is that a return trip is a new trip. I talked to Ellyn Polakoff about her Heart to Heart experience. It was her second visit. “You could go 100 times and have a different experience each time,” she says. “I remember going to the Wall and seeing the soldiers. You cannot imagine the feeling, unless you are there.” She remembers visiting a high-tech school where students learned, just a few miles from the bombs over Sderot. She met women learning skills for self-sufficiency and heard stories from a Holocaust survivor who found a home in Israel. She wants to return.

Everyone does, says Laurie Luskin, who chaired the national Heart to Heart mission. “Every time you go, it’s a different experience, she says. “It’s never a been there or done that. You realize that you have been changed after visiting Israel.”

I think it’s a visceral, intoxicating connection – no one seems to get enough of that feeling of belonging … of coming home. No zip code in the States has that same pull.

Dear Israel, I know that my grandparents visited you, back in the 1970s.

They weren’t much for travel, never even had a passport until then. But, you, you they would see. I imagine that it was a virtual fist-bump to their parents, who came here from Russia, leaving family behind, whose letters stopped one day. I imagine it was a dream come true, a victory, for them to see the Jewish homeland firsthand.

And even though my grandmother was recovering from the brutal treatment regimen that defined early cancer care, they went. How could they not? It was their only trip. It was their last trip.

Israel, I have news for you.

Baltimore is on the way. Again.

In February, The Associated is joining the national Jewish Federations of North America Heart to Heart mission. We’ll spend a meaningful, inspiring Shabbat in Jerusalem and visit Ashkelon, our sister city, as a Baltimore group. Then, we’ll join the national mission. We’ll see the sights, talk with people making a difference, explore and understand how all of us are part and parcel of Israel – today and tomorrow.

Every woman is invited to be a part of this life-changing mission.

Israel, in my dream come true, I’ll be there, too.

Heart to Heart 2014 Baltimore experience: Thursday, February 6 through Saturday, February 8 Heart to Heart: Sunday, February 9 through Thursday, February 13 Costs: $2350, land-only, double-occupancy, plus additional costs to be determined for Baltimore experience; flights coordinated through Gil Travel at 212-284-6660. A leadership gift to The Associated’s 2014 Annual Campaign is requested. For more information, contact Liz Schuman, 410-369-9251 or eschuman@associated.org.

Meet Marina

Marina

By Marina Moldavanskaya
Baltimore-Odessa Partnership Coordinator

Sometimes one decision can completely change your life. My mother was invited to her cousin’s wedding but decided not to attend simply because she had nothing to wear. Her uncle convinced her to come because he wanted to introduce her to a “nice Jewish guy” – my father. This is how my family story began.

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time with at my grandmother’s home in a small city in eastern Ukraine. My grandmother is a ghetto survivor and her mother and one-year-old sister were killed in World War II. Now my grandmother receives medical and food support from the JDC Hesed Center. As a child, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be Jewish, but everything changed when my brother began at the Jewish World ORT School in Odessa. Since our parents grew up in the Soviet Union, they knew very little about Jewish culture and traditions. My mother spoke Yiddish and knew Jewish song and recipes but that was the extent of her knowledge. My father’s family always was very poor but he was motivated to attend college. He was never accepted because he identified with being Jewish.

When I was seven, I began at the same school as my brother and we quickly became our parents teachers on Jewish history and traditions. When I was 16 and a madricha at the Israeli Cultural Center, I attended my first Shabbaton. After three seminars and Shabbatons, I began volunteering at the youth club of the Israeli Cultural Center. When I was 18, I became the head of Beitar, an Israeli leadership development program originally founded by Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky. The Beit Grand JCC, the second JCC in Odessa, was opened in 2008 and I became a volunteer there as well. This past June, I received my Masters degree in English, Spanish linguistics and foreign literature.

It’s impossible to live in the Former Soviet Union and not feel the pain and suffering the Jewish people experienced. But living in Odessa means something more — you also see the great heritage of the Jewish people from this great city. I always feel proud to be Jewish in this wonderful city.

In my new position as the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership Coordinator, I am excited to carry on the very work that allowed me to get here in the first place. In this role, I am connected to the wide array of Jewish programming in our community. I am excited to help develop projects between our two communities that will generate mutual relationships and connections between people. The future projects will create long-lasting bonds that will educate us about our Jewish family around the world as well as make the connection between Baltimore and Odessa even stronger.

To contact Marina, email mmoldavanskaya@gmail.com

Beyond Labels

Justin Hayet blog

By Justin Hayet

This past July, I traveled to Israel with the National Diller Alumni Task Force. I decided to arrive in Israel a few days early so I would have time to return to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city and my home away from home in Israel. After a fun weekend filled with much needed time at the beach and long hours catching up with old friends, it was time to get my hands dirty and volunteer. Professionals in the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership connected me with Meitar, a center for at-risk teens. Meitar’s newest program is its candle making factory, which fosters a meaningful yet challenging teamwork environment for its participants.

Admittedly, at first I was scared. I hadn’t previously spent time volunteering alone, I wasn’t fluent in Hebrew and I didn’t know what to expect from the label “at-risk.” After five minutes with the teenagers, who were merely a year or two younger than myself, all fear and anxiety disappeared as they worked hard to teach me how to make candles and the gift baskets they were assembling for Rosh Hashanah. I was overwhelmed by how dedicated and passionate the teens were about the arduous task of making candles from scratch.

It was rather obvious however, that these teens did not have easy home lives. I felt sad as I realized that the peers I was creating connections with were labeled “at-risk.” After sharing many laughs and making a lot of candles, I began to see beyond the label. Yes, these teens are “at-risk,” mostly for reasons outside their control, but when I looked at these teenagers and their teamwork to create candles for the community of Ashkelon, I did not see “at-risk” teenagers. I saw people overcoming obstacles I could not imagine overcoming. I saw people striving to make a better life for themselves through working with others. And I saw, perhaps most personal for me, The Associated’s partnership with Ashkelon at work and excelling in its effort to break the cycle of poverty and create a brighter future for the entire community in Ashkelon.

I could have easily spent the day on the beach, soaking up the sun and taking in the award winning beaches of Ashkelon, but the famous Talmudic phrase is at the forefront of my mind every day when I am in Israel: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh; All of Israel is responsible for each other.The money and efforts by The Associated, in partnership with the city of Ashkelon, are making a difference and it was incredible to see that in action at Meitar.

Israel presents myriad opportunities for touring and learning, but volunteering in Israel, especially in Ashkelon, brings the experience to a personal and impactful level that no tourist attraction can compare to. Volunteering in Ashkelon pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I am better because of it.

For more information about volunteer opportunities in Ashkelon, contact Rebecca Weinstock at rweinstock@associated.org or 410-843-7566.

Odessa Gives Back

By IMG_0329Marina Moldavanskaya
Baltimore-Odessa Partnership Coordinator

Hundreds of people gathered this Saturday night for a wonderful event in Odessa – Party for Charity. This party combined both fun and philanthropy and featured three local DJs.
The project was created by Hillel student Kate Gilenkova for the Youth Leadership Project Metsuda. Her project is aimed at collecting money for children-at-risk. They plan to host seven parties a year, raising money from the entrance fees. During the summer, a group of children will have an opportunity to have a week holiday on the sea at a recreation center. Kate always dreamed of helping people and she finally had the opportunity to contribute to the world movement of philanthropy.

Metsuda, a program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, engages a select group of participants from across Ukraine in a year-long combination of training seminars and a community service project. Metsuda cultivates strong alumni connections and invites graduates back to oversee proposed community projects by current participants.

The Associated, working in conjunction with its primary overseas service providers, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) allocates roughly one-third of its Annual Campaign budget to Israel and Overseas initiatives like Metsuda in Odessa.

My Journey To Israel

Danielle

By Danielle Gelber

A Jewish day school attendee since age three, I always knew about Israel. I learned about the history, the language and the culture, but still the notion of a Jewish homeland remained foreign.

When I was in 10th grade, I applied to the Diller Teen Fellows Program, one of the teen leadership programs organized by The Associated’s Jewish Volunteer Connection, hoping to meet Jewish teens from the Baltimore area, gain leadership experience and visit Israel. What I didn’t realize was that as a participant in Diller, I would not just visit Israel, but fall in love with Israel as a culture, a homeland and a heart of the Jewish people.

As part of the program, the North American cities travel to Israel in the summer. The three week summer trip is divided into three sections: one week devoted to touring, one week devoted to meeting and learning from Diller fellows from North America and Israel and one week spent in the home of your match from your delegation’s partner city. On the Baltimore delegation’s final night in Israel, we sat cross-legged with knees touching in a tight maagal lilah, taking turns reflecting on our favorite part of the trip. For some of my peers who were enjoying their first trip to Israel, the touring week was their favorite. Others enjoyed hearing opinions from teens, staff and guest speakers during Congress, the week dedicated to dialogue between the Diller delegations.

The week in Ashkelon was my favorite. It was the first time in my visits to Israel that I stopped feeling like a tourist awkwardly navigating the streets of Israel with a neon orange Orioles baseball cap plastered to my forehead, a black L.L.Bean backpack tightly strapped to my back and the words “Slicha, efo hasherutim” etched in my memory.

During the week in Ashkelon, I lived at the home of the Hatav Family, a welcoming family of six whose eldest daughter, Osher, had stayed at my house during the North American Seminar in March. Together, we went to the supermarket to buy groceries for Shabbat dinner. The next day, I chatted with some of Osher’s friends from high school after we walked to the local store to buy an ice cream snack. On Sunday, I went to the mall with Osher, her mom and her sister on a mission to find the goofiest clothes in the mall. Since that week in Ashkelon, I think of Israel as the home of my sister Osher where I am always welcome.

Feeling inspired after finishing my Diller experience, I continued my involvement in Judaism as an undergraduate student at Boston University. Because Hebrew is my way of connecting to Israel and Judaism, I have taken Hebrew every semester since starting college. After recognizing my progress in the program, the head of the Hebrew department asked me to tutor other students struggling with Hebrew. In this role, I hope to help others develop their connections to Judaism.

Following our graduation from the Diller program, many of my peers have gotten involved Jewishly on campus, as well. For example, Justin Hayet, a rising sophomore at SUNY Binghamton University, attended both AIPAC Saban Leadership Conference for college students and the annual Policy Conference during his freshman year. Justin also spent his summer interning at the Baltimore Jewish Times. Among other extracurriculars, Alex Kadish devoted her time freshman year to Chabad House at George Washington University as a member of the General Board, a group of students dedicated to planning religious events and coordinating new student outreach initiatives. Starting this year, Alex is slated as the Israel Liason for Chabad; in this role she will help integrate Israel into Chabad programming and events. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, Eli Davis joined the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and became a member of the Jews in Greek Life Fellowship, a Hillel-sponsored organization comprised of Jews in Greek life who serve as lay leaders between the Jewish and Greek communities on campus.

These teens serve as examples of how Diller encourages its participants to explore their connections to Israel through their individualized interests, whether it’s language, politics, religion or community. The personal connections my friends and I have developed make our dedication to Israel so sustainable. I am thankful to the Diller program for strengthening my pride as a Jew and as a member of the Baltimore Jewish community.

Summer Camp In Odessa

IMG_4434

By Marina Moldavanskaya

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) youth summer camp “City of Roads and Masters” took place in Odessa from July 5-12. An amazing world of Jewish life was created by the JAFI madrichim (counselors). Children of different ages gathered to make their first steps into the Jewish world. On the first day of the camp the children were asked such questions as: “What is the Torah?”, “What do you call the cap that Jewish men wear?” and “What is Shabbat?” Before this camp, these children, ages 7-12, knew close to nothing about Judaism and Israel. By the end of the camp all of them could explain what a Mezuzah, Torah and Shabbat are. At this age it’s sometimes difficult to perceive information in the form of conversation or lecture. For this reason the organizers chose to educate through creative forums. Each group of children were making a special collage and working with different materials. By the end of the camp the participants presented their collages, made of plasticine, paper, cloth, etc. The collages were the reflections of children’s perception of Tanach stories and characters. The topics of each day varied, so the participants had a chance to get to know a lot, not only about Jewish history and traditions, but also about Israel. “Israel Day” gave the full picture of the contemporaneity: history, different layers of the population, traditions, holidays, food, etc. At the end of the “Israel Day” children, many for the first time, ate Israeli falafel. All the participants left with memories, impressions and Jewish knowledge.

Dedicated To Making An IMPACT

IMPACT Israel TripBy Michael Yaffe

When I was growing up in South Florida, my Hebrew school teachers told me stories about their visits to the Jewish homeland. Seeing the Western Wall first-hand, floating in the Dead Sea, eating kosher McDonalds … it was just a matter of time before I made my trek to that part of the world.

My life was forever changed in 2004 when I went on March of the Living, an annual educational program that brings students from all over the world to Israel and Poland to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. Instantly, the idea of Israel became more than just a magical place to visit.  I now understood that its existence was vital for the Jewish people.

When I heard of the opportunity to travel with IMPACT, as a “young adult,” several years out of college, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to connect with Israel in a different and special way.

After a quick 10-hour flight, our group of 13 arrived at Dan Carmel where we met our fellow mission participants. (There were over 140 young adults from over 10 cities on this Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Summer Trip.) We spent time at the port of Haifa and caught a glimpse of the Baha’i Gardens, one of the most beautiful scenes in Israel. We then spent the day in the Galilee, rafting down the Jordan River. That evening we threw a party for the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Meeting these young men and women who protect the state of Israel was very special – their service is something that we in the diaspora can never take for granted.

The next morning, we heard from speakers who opened our eyes to some of the challenges in integration of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jews. Traveling to Jerusalem, we saw some of the important work being done for the disabled by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) such as helping those who feel isolated. We then visited the Druze community, an Arabic-speaking religious minority in which all men serve in the IDF. We learned how the Druze integrate into Israeli society through such paths as Babcom, an Israeli high-tech firm. Finally, after a long bus ride, we caught our first glimpse of the Old City of Jerusalem from a beautiful vantage point on a hill. With wine-filled cups, we had our long-awaited Shehecheyanu (the prayer to be thankful for a new experience).

Jerusalem is truly a remarkable place. Considered a holy city to many different religions, and a center of conflict for millennia, it functions so peacefully when you’re there. We saw the Kotel from different vantage points and then spent the rest of the afternoon at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Institutions like Yad Vashem play an important role for the future of the Jewish people. We were lucky enough to hear from Rene Quint, a child survivor.  I thought to myself that I must not take for granted that we are one of the last generations to hear these first-hand accounts. After the session with the docent that concluded with our own private ceremony at the Valley of Communities, everyone saw the true meaning of the state of Israel.

The next morning, at 2:00 a.m., we awoke to climb Masada. How could pushing our exhausted selves up the snake path at 4:00 a.m. possibly be worth it? All it took was the sun peaking above the mountains across from the Dead Sea to know that it was a vision we would never forget. Our early morning afforded us the time to recommit ourselves to our Jewish roots, which I notice, is something that we lose in the daily hustle of life.

Even though our day started extremely early, our day ended with a Kabbalat Shabbat at the Southern Wall. As the sun set in Jerusalem, we took personal time at the Kotel.  With our thoughts and prayers left in the cracks of the wall, we walked to our Shabbat dinner at Beit Shmuel overlooking the Old City.

The next morning, we caught up on some sleep and enjoyed Shabbat. We had the day to ourselves and some, like me, went to the Israel Museum. Others went on the rampart walks of the Old City. After a windy havdallah (I think the candle was lit for a second) service, we were off to the Western Wall tunnels for a night tour.

On Sunday morning, following a panel discussion with Knesset members, we left the capital to make our way to Independence Hall, which used to be an art museum in Tel Aviv.  We visited Rabin Square where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  Along with others from Baltimore, I went south to Florentin to check out the street art. We were now gaining insight into contemporary Tel Aviv culture.

On the last day of our trip, we got to see what The Associated does to directly impact the lives of people in Ashkelon. We participated in the Baltimore-Ashkelon 10-year partnership mosaic at the Volunteer Center and then visited an Ethiopian absorption center. At the absorption center we learned of the challenges of integrating a people into a whole new society and how much work it takes by so many different people. It truly made me think – if not us, then who?

It’s hard not see, after a trip like this, how important Israel’s existence is for all of us. It is  our future. I realize I only saw a piece of our Jewish homeland, but I left feeling more connected and complete than I was just three weeks prior. In order to see the magic that is Israel, you must physically stand there. At the Western Wall. At Masada. At Yad Vashem.

I understand the impact that the Jewish Federation system makes on the people of Israel and know that I am now a part of that. We as Americans, and even more importantly, we as Jews in the diaspora, can do more. Officially this year, Israel’s Jewish population exceeds that of the United States. Israel is the future. I am dedicated to Israel and I am dedicated to our people.

Volunteering Overseas: A Journey of Meaningful Engagement

Grossman blog

By Jen Grossman
Vice-Chair, JVC

It wasn’t until I was midway over the Atlantic Ocean, that it hit me that I was really en route to Israel. The planning had been in the works for months, but the reality of it hadn’t seemed tangible until this moment.

I hadn’t been to Israel in 21 years and I had no idea what to expect. I was traveling there in my role as Vice Chair of Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC) to learn about existing volunteer programs in Israel and to help create more opportunities for people who wanted to broaden their travel experience by volunteering.

In just one short week not only did I learn about the incredible landscape of volunteer initiatives in Israel, but through these meetings, site visits and experiences, I altered my perspective and definition of volunteerism. It became crystal clear that volunteering, particularly abroad, was more about connecting to people then doing something for them. That the importance of it wasn’t about the outcome, but was about the process.

My trip started in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and my experiences and conversations in Ashkelon became the catalyst for opening my eyes to the power of connecting to a community or an individual in order to help that community thrive.

I will never forget my visit to an Ethiopian Youth Outreach Center run by the Ethiopian National Project (ENP).  The Center established a community garden to help strengthen the bond between Ethiopian teens and their parents. I toured the garden and listened to participants share how tending to the garden allowed them to rediscover a piece of their identity that they had lost when they left Ethiopia. The pride they took in their crops, in their successes and in the responsibility of their plot was indescribable.

In a gesture to share their culture with me, a group of the mothers invited me to join in their weekly coffee brewing ritual. They prepared cooked corn and bread in the way they would have in Ethiopia and generously asked me to eat it with them. It was at that moment I realized my purpose for being there! It wasn’t a wall they wanted painted or a structured project to do with them. They wanted me to sit and join them – to learn about their culture and their heritage. They wanted me to do something with them, not for them – to share a piece of who they are and take it with me to share with the world.

At that moment I realized there is no one way to volunteer and no cookie cutter definition of how to volunteer. I spent the rest of my week embracing Israel and making people-to-people connections by listening to the stories that were shared with me. Whether it was working with a group of special needs adults, at-risk teens or a women’s empowerment group, there was no shortage of opportunities for me to connect and volunteer in a way that felt both meaningful and authentic.

For more information about volunteer opportunities in Ashkelon or to participate in an exciting local community art initiative to celebrate the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, contact Rebecca Weinstock at rweinstock@associated.org or 410-843-7566.