Collaboration at Its Best

Reinvent. Rethink. Rebrand. Innovate.

They’re all buzzwords we hear today — whether talking about education, health care, product marketing or Jewish communal work. We’re living in a time in which endless access to information and 24-hour communication is challenging us to question just about everything. As a result, we have seen new models of business, philanthropy and outreach throughout the world. For some, the opportunities are tremendous.

In the Jewish community, we have also witnessed a new age of innovation. Birthright, Moishe House and PJ Library are just three organizations that have emerged to fill our communal needs. And at this year’s annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, we are going to take a good look at how we can continue to maximize our potential.

We will know we have been successful when attendees leave with just as many new questions as answers and are inspired to continue the conversation long after the conference concludes.

The theme of the G.A. is “The World is Our Backyard.” The program amplifies this message through a combination of thinking sessions and inspirational moments, high-level speakers and new opportunities for federations to share their best programs and strategies and discuss their scalability.

In Florida, for example, the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando recognized how tough it is for adults with disabilities to find jobs. So JFGO started a program called RAISE (Recognizing Abilities and Inclusion of Special Employees) that not only matches adults with special needs to part-time jobs, but also gives those employees professional support and job training, helping them to become valued and productive members of the community.

In San Francisco, the Jewish Community Federation was struggling to figure how to engage young people in philanthropy. The result was to schedule events around different themes that the federation supports, whether Jewish camping or LGBT programming, with each attendee asked to make voluntary contributions.

In Vancouver, Jewish leaders saw the difficulty in getting social services to suburban areas and came up with JHub Richmond, which provides office space, meeting rooms and administrative support for social workers, counselors and peer support staff from various agencies in their work with clients, family members and caregivers.

These kinds of programs are in our Jewish community backyards throughout North America. When Jewish Federations of North America solicited 153 North American federations for ideas to feature at this year’s GA, to be held Nov. 9 through Nov. 11 at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County, we received 250 submissions, selecting 50 to showcase.

By featuring these 50, we’ll be giving representatives from across North America the opportunity to gather ideas, share stories and question their colleagues on what worked for them, what didn’t and what they learned along the way.

It’s collaboration at its best.

And that’s what the General Assembly is all about: Federations are able to amplify the successes of their own communities to others and think about the ways we can have a greater impact on the issues and concerns we share.

Being together will fuel our neshamot, our souls, allowing us to return to our communities renewed and inspired.

Willful Blindness to Academic Anti-Semitism

As yet more evidence that academics are regularly able to engage in what George Orwell sardonically referred to as “doublethink,” this month, 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who have been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

While the 40 academics claim they, of course, reject anti-Semitism totally as part of teaching, they were equally repelled by the tactics and possible effects of the AMCHA Initiative report, a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the latest Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars.

Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the indignant professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believe, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.” That is a rather breathtaking assertion by academics; namely, that it is contrary to the core mission of higher education that ideas and instruction being publicly expressed by professors cannot be examined and judged and that by even applying some standards of objectivity on a body of teaching by a particular professor AMCHA stifles debate.

Only in the inverted reality of academia could a group of largely Jewish professors denounce a study that had as its core purpose to alert students to professors who have demonstrated, publicly and seemingly proudly, that they harbor anti-Israel attitudes, attitudes that unfortunately frequently morph into anti-Semitic thought and speech as part of discussions about Israel and the Middle East. Since the individuals named in the report teach in the area of Middle East studies, they are also likely to bring that anti-Israel bias into the classroom with them, and students, therefore, would obviously benefit from AMCHA’s report.

Can anyone believe that had the AMCHA Initiative issued a report that revealed the existence of endemic racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or Islamophobia in university coursework, and had warned students who might be negatively impacted to steer clear of courses taught by those offending professors, that these same 40 feckless professors would have denounced such reports as potentially having a negative effect on teaching and learning?

None of the Jewish studies professors seemed to be concerned with investigations of purported instances of Islamophobia on campus and elsewhere and how exposing those occurrences might lead to a stifling of someone’s academic free speech.

So regardless of how significant the professors seem to think the problem of anti-Semitism actually is, and whether they wish to minimize the virulence of anti-Semitism because they insist on conflating it with, and making it part of, the furious academic debate about the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, the AMCHA report shows us that the “oldest hatred” is still with us, creeping noxiously up the ivy walls.

Give Me a Sign

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaWhy are signs so important? Meta-phorical or physical, signs bring an abstract thought into concrete reality. A sign can be a benchmark of accomplishments and a metric for possibilities.

We like signs because we like to show dedication to hard work and perseverance with something more eternal than ourselves.  We want to show that we overcame the mundane and did something for the greater good.

Emerging from the High Holiday season, we can relate to ambition, setting goals, self-analysis and overcoming obstacles.  And even more, we recognize how hard it can be to change our behaviors and practices.  After all, that same list of transgressions we read every year often seem applicable or appropriate in some way.

Every year, we take stock of where we are and what we could be doing better.  Every year, we vow to try to be better people. To press a restart button, wipe the slate clean and start anew.  As we know from our New Year rituals and Yom Kippur atonement, behavior change is something that does not happen without lots of practice, asking for forgiveness and do-overs.  And even with some prescriptive instructions, we often still get it wrong.

Change begins with someone acting differently and actualizing the need for the change.  Economic motivators are not enough of an impetus if it’s not also behaviorally driven.   People need constant reminders and reinforcement that what they do matters.  This keeps us on the right track, until we can look back and see the bigger picture of the impact of our efforts.

Over this summer, I began seeing numerous signs for “restoration” projects: along trails, in urban revitalization projects, in reclamation of old industrial buildings for community use.

Without the signage that goes with these projects, much of the impact and long-term effect on those who encounter the projects would be lost.  Now that green space project down the street that is ripping up a local parking lot isn’t just a nuisance,

but a source of local pride of community improvement, increasing health benefits along with property values, habitat, air and water quality.

Likewise, organizational and municipal projects need to convey to the public how they service and positively impact the community, improving everyone is quality of living whether you walk through their doors or not.  The result is more buy-in, more pride and more stakeholders.  The longevity of the action will be sustained longer because people will take more pride in ensuring its continued impact.

Restoration is one of those words like sustainability that can take on many meanings depending on context. When looking up some of the local restoration efforts I came across some familiar phrases to such as: “dedicated to stewardship”, “maintain, preserve and protect the natural environment” and “provide a legacy for future generations.”

Quality of the community and neighborhoods goes up when there has been an investment in everyone’s well-being.  Rewards are often compounded and reaped exponentially.  But how many people are aware of this?

The benchmark defining when something is sufficiently restored, quantifying the benefits and tolerance of any inconvenience will likely not happen through formal education such as workshops and seminars, but informally through signage on-site of a project, in an impacted neighborhood or in the lobby of a partnering organization.

Is Pope Francis a Model for Our Rabbis?

The shift in tone that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church has serious repercussions for people who follow that religion — and those of other faith systems. As the most prominent religious figure in today’s world, the actions, ideas  and approach of the pontiff deserve attention, including among Jews.

That’s no criticism of the gedolim. Instead, it’s a recognition that Jewish leaders need not shy away from the moral and intellectual contributions of great men of other faiths. As the Jewish collection of wisdom Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.”

Nothing mentioned below should be interpreted as criticizing any rabbi — or supporting the violation of unambiguous Jewish laws. Instead, I’m praising values and behaviors that Pope Francis models — at least some of which can be a lesson to every present and future rabbi, whether a local synagogue rabbi or one of our generation’s leading rabbinical figures.

Here are some qualities shown by Pope Francis that are worthy of consideration:

He is accessible. Many Catholics have praised the “common touch” of the current pontiff, particularly in contrast to the more aloof popes of the past. In his desire to communicate with all kinds of people, he has become conversant in 10 languages. This pope uses Twitter. He regularly grants interviews to the press and speaks openly about important moral and contemporary matters in public settings.

He is humble. Upon his election, he eschewed the tradition of sitting on the Papal Throne — and stood instead. A Jewish leader who visited him said, “If everyone sat in chairs with [arms], he would sit in the one without.” He lives modestly in a guesthouse. He drives himself around Rome in a 30-year-old used Renault. Previous pontiffs rode as passengers in the Pope-mobile, a Mercedes in which the pope would sit on a chair made from white leather with gold trim.

He is traditional.  Pope Francis does not surrender to calls for assimilating recent social values that are foreign to Catholicism. On the other hand, he has been willing to listen with respect and kindness to people advocating all kinds of new ideas.

He is merciful.  Soon after ascending to the papacy, Francis washed and kissed the feet of several juvenile offenders. He goes out of his way to embrace people who are usually demeaned by the wider society, especially the poor. In fact, alleviating poverty seems to be the centerpiece of his papacy.

He is respectful. Under Pope Francis, Catholic clergy no longer speak of “living in sin,” a phrase that had been an unnecessary slap in the face to Catholics whose family arrangements do not involve church-approved marriages. The recently convened Synod on the Family just released a draft document that declared that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer,” though they maintained the church’s policies on the nature of proper bedroom and family life.

To be clear: I am not envious of Catholicism and I don’t wish Judaism would echo that religion’s ideology and practices. Rather, I’m describing the extraordinary leadership of a special person who has inspired hundreds of millions.

What Really Matters

As a nursing home rabbi/chaplain for more than 20 years, I sometimes am asked by a Jewish resident or family member:  What type of rabbi are you?”  My humorous response to the question is, “A Jewish Rabbi!”

When a person is confronted with serious illness, especially for the first time, he or she may feel embarrassment or shame for being so dependent on others and perhaps even alienated from one’s faith in G-d at being in such a lonely, painful situation. In my role as a chaplain/rabbi, I am called upon to give hope and strength to the frail elderly in our midst at such troubling times. I believe that my role is to be nonjudgmental, striving to support the person and the family in whatever way possible.

While I am primarily the spiritual leader for the Jewish residents in my work, I also serve as a chaplain for our non-Jewish clientele.

What this means to me, as taught by my teachers, is that every human being is a person of G-d, while every Jew is like a family member, my own flesh and blood.

What I have learned is how we treat one another is often more important than what we say to one another. Also, in my role as a teacher, I share the belief that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

In Deuteronomy 6:4, the Torah states: “Hear, O Israel: the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.” The classical commentator, Rashi, notes that the statement refers both to the Jewish people who now recognize “the L-rd as our G-d,” as well as the nations of the world, who will eventually one day recognize in the future “the L-rd is One.”

By the same token, I am the spiritual leader for the Jewish elderly in my midst, inspiring their lives through the familiar tunes of the Shabbat and Yom Tov prayers in our shul. The ups and downs of their lives are paralleled by the highs and lows of the Jewish calendar.

As we move forward in the year, let us reflect upon our unique role as the Jewish people in the world. Our strength comes from our perception of ourselves as one people. Do we need to be reminded that Hamas does not differentiate between Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Reform Jews when it seeks to wage war against Israel?

The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:6 Haftorah Parshat Bereishit) brings G-d’s message: “I am G-d; in righteousness have I called you and taken hold of your hand; I have protected you and appointed you to bring the people to the covenant, to be a light for the nations.”

Targeting the Islamic State’s Bottom Line

Speaking before the United Nations last week, President Barack Obama pledged to lead a global coalition of countries committed to degrading and destroying the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Alongside airstrikes, train-and-equip programs for moderate rebels and efforts to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region, the president added that “we will work to cut off their financing.” That, however, may prove hard work.

The U.S. government has already kicked efforts to target ISIS financing into high gear. Airstrikes targeted a few dozen small oil refineries in Eastern Syria that were processing oil seized by ISIS, and other strikes hit a building U.S. Central Command described as an ISIS “finance center” in the Raqqa area. And there’s more to come: “This organization, even after the hits they’ve taken, still have financing at their fingertips,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said after the refinery airstrikes. “This is just the beginning.”

That’s good, because ISIS controls resources such as oil, wheat, water and ancient artifacts that it plunders for its own financial gain. Airstrikes aimed at thwarting its territorial expansion would have counter-terror finance benefits of its own.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury continues to designate terrorist financiers and logisticians supporting ISIS (and other groups), including 12 “foreign terrorist fighter facilitators” from Georgia, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan.

Unlike al-Qaeda, which is heavily reliant on major Gulf donors, ISIS has been financially self-sufficient for at least eight years by virtue of engaging in tremendously successful criminal enterprises in Iraq. According to a November 2006 U.S. government assessment cited in The New York Times, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups had created a self-sustaining insurgency in Iraq, raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities alone.

The problem is that we have tools — from military force to Treasury designations and more in between — to deal with oil smuggling and extremist sugar daddies in the Gulf, but our ability to counter ISIS’s criminal enterprises is severely limited. Coalition forces are no longer on the ground in Iraq, and there is no interagency Iraq Threat Finance Cell to collect financial intelligence and feed operators timely targeting information to take down ISIS financiers. Nor are Iraqi law enforcement agencies able or willing to effectively combat what amounts to local criminal activity.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2170, passed in August to much acclaim, calls on all U.N. member states “to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.” That is indeed a step in the right direction. But at least as important will be pressing and empowering the Shia-led government in Iraq to forgo sectarianism and corruption in favor of governance and the rule of law. The most complicated front in the financial fight against ISIS will be fought domestically against the vast criminal networks funding it within Iraq.

What the Gaza War Taught Us

I was in Israel with my congregation when the Gaza War broke out. We had just sat down for our farewell dinner when we heard the red alert. Rockets from Gaza were on their way. The staff calmly directed us to its safe room. Thankfully, Iron Dome intercepted all the rockets, and we returned to dinner.

Some of us stayed in Tel Aviv after the rest of the group returned home. Another congregant and I were in the water when the red alert again sounded. We were too far from the shelter so we ran for cover under a cement overhang. Within 38 seconds we saw the incoming rockets. We watched as Iron Dome missiles found their marks. We had other red alert moments during our post-Mission stay. This is what I learned:

Miracles still happen. Iron Dome is reported to be 90 percent effective. Yet, not one Hamas rocket struck a populated area. Analysts believe if not for the rockets, Israel would never have discovered Hamas’ plan to launch a major terrorist attack on Rosh Hashanah through its tunnels. Miracles or coincidences?

Israelis are tremendously resilient. We quickly learned the basics: shoes and a bag with water and medications next to the bed. At any moment an alert could sound. Despite tremendous stress, Israelis stayed calm and carried on.

Israel still makes us proud. How can we not feel for the Palestinian people’s suffering? Hamas relies on us to. Hamas knows it cannot destroy Israel militarily, so it seeks to delegitimize Israel. Its main weapon is not the rocket but the sound bite and graphic image. That is why Hamas plants rocket launchers among civilians and tells them not to leave when Israel warns them to evacuate. How do you deal with an enemy who hates you more than it loves its own people? Israel responds by doing what it can. What other military telegraphs its intentions by warning of an impending attack or continues to send humanitarian aid to reduce civilian suffering? Israel is not perfect. No nation is. But the lengths to which Israel goes to protect civilians is unprecedented, even if unappreciated, on the world stage. We have many reasons to be proud of Israel. I am most proud that, even under fire, Israelis retained their compassion for the enemy.

Israel needs us now more than ever. Even during the Gaza War, European Jews fleeing rising anti-Semitism in Europe made aliyah. What if Israel were not there for them? Israel relies on American support. Iron Dome is just one example. Rampant anti-Israel bias on college campuses is shaping the next generation of voters and policymakers. Main-line Protestant churches have already divested from Israel. What if Israel ever lost American support? Israel needs us to be more passionate in our support. Israel needs us to educate ourselves and our children about the issues and share what we know with others. Israel needs us to give what we can, show up when we can and advocate however we can.

We don’t have to agree with everything Israel does in its fight to existas a Jewish state, but we must do everything we can to support Israel’s success. As the great sage Hillel taught: “If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Connect With Us Online

The Internet has changed the way we communicate, shop and interact within our community. A national survey to mark the 25th anniversary of the Web, conducted by the Pew Research Center, quantified its incredible reach and impact. Today, 87 percent of Americans use the Internet, with near-saturation usage among those living in households earning $75,000 or more (99 percent), young adults ages 18-29 (97 percent) and those with college degrees (97 percent).

Businesses know that they must be proactive and prominent in their Web presence to attract new customers. The same is true for nonprofits as they help build their reputations online.

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has been serving our community and caring for Jews in need around the globe for more than 90 years. While the mission of The Associated has remained consistent throughout those decades, the way in which we reach out to and engage donors, volunteers and community members has evolved and changed with the times.

Last month, The Associated launched a new website, which serves as both an easy entry point for people to get involved in the community and an opportunity to highlight the reach of every donor’s investment to aid, enhance and enrich Jews in Baltimore and around the world.

To ensure that The Associated’s site would be the best possible Web representation of the organization and its mission, The Associated’s marketing team worked with a volunteer task force made up of professionals from both the technology and marketing fields.

The result is a vibrant site that is responsive to a variety of devices, from a traditional desktop computer to a smartphone, with crisp writing that can be easily digested when viewed on a small screen. In addition, the site adheres to 508 compliance, enabling users with disabilities to visit the site and interaction with the content.

The home page of the site is a welcoming environment and is divided into the three primary areas of interest among users. Visitors can learn about The Associated and its extensive system of local, national and international agencies; get involved through a myriad of committees, volunteer opportunities and social or networking events; or get help for a variety of areas of need, ranging from financial assistance to caring for aging parents.

Much of the work pursued by The Associated involves face-to-face communication and is built on strong, collaborative relationships among professionals, donors, volunteers and organizations throughout our community.  While there will never be a substitute for that personal touch, it is critical that The Associated stays connected to trends online and to users who want to access information at their fingertips. The new website makes that possible. I invite you to log onto associated.org to learn about all that The Associated does for Jewish Baltimore and for Jews in Israel and around the globe and to get involved with our inspiring community.

John Shmerler is chair of marketing for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. He also chaired the organizationís website task force.

BBYO: A Truly International Experience

BBYO teens around the world had been waiting with great anticipation for the morning of Sept. 30, when online registration opened for the organization’s largest convention of the year — the International Convention.

With more than 2,000 teens expected to register, BBYO staff nervously monitored its website, hoping it wouldn’t crash as the clock turned to 8 a.m. From an outside perspective, it can be hard to understand what would inspire so many teens to sign up for this four-day retreat.

There are the obvious reasons: dances, concerts, spending time with friends, traveling to a different state, meeting new people, hearing interesting speakers and what every teen values — time away from home. But it’s the extra steps BBYO takes that distinguishes this event from the many that are available to Jewish teens.

Last year, attendees were treated to performances from Aloe Blacc, American Authors and B.o.B, along with wonderful excursions through the city of Dallas. The daily programs connected participants to other BBYO teens from around the world and featured professionals who were able to reflect on the ways in which BBYO had shaped their lives. Finally, the teens filmed a commercial for the American Heart Association for CPR awareness, demonstrating how they could all come together to produce something that would benefit all people.

In addition to IC activities, an entire movement within BBYO is dedicated to globalization. This includes programming for members to learn about the customs and Jewish heritage of communities worldwide.

During the Israeli conflict with Hamas this past summer, BBYO hosted an online briefing with the minister of public and academic affairs at the Israeli Embassy to help BBYO members more fully understand the situation and to give advice on how to speak up for Israel. BBYO also sent information to its members to participate in the IDF Aid Campaign to send care packages and letters of thanks to members of the Israel Defense Forces.

It is these types of programs that make BBYO unique and encourage teens to attend IC. Concerts and dances are great, but having the opportunity to interact with Jewish teens from around the world and learn about what it means to be a Jew in their world is why this program is so special.

BBYO’s International Convention will take place Feb. 12-16, 2015 in Atlanta. To learn more about BBYO or the convention, contact BBYO Baltimore Council Regional Director Danielle Hercenberg at bmore@bbyo.org or call 410-559-3549.

Alyssa Weiss is a senior at Pikesville High School and a member from Achot BBG in the Northern Region East: Baltimore Council, where she serves as vice president of communication.

Don’t Lose Sight of Terror’s Human Impact

In the wake of the historic verdict by a federal court in Brooklyn that found Jordanian Arab Bank liable for knowingly providing financial services to Hamas, it’s important to remember that the decision can be more than just a message to financial institutions doing business with terrorists.

This landmark ruling should also be an incredible message to the 297 plaintiffs in the case — who were either injured themselves or have family members who were killed in 24 different Hamas attacks during the Second Intifada — that we recognize their suffering and losses as well as the travails of all other terrorism survivors, victims and victims’ family members whose claims derive from other acts of Palestinian violence not yet been addressed in a court of law.

The Brooklyn court’s decision also has more than just legal and financial implications. We must focus on the human impact of terror on surviving individuals and the families — the physical and emotional scars they will carry for the rest of their lives. How can one forget the aftermath of a bomb detonated in a crowded bus or café, bullets flying through a car windshield or a rocket crashing through an apartment building?

Over the past decade, I have interviewed terrorism survivors and their families, as well as victims’ families, while compiling my book, “Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing.” I have heard the voices and passions of otherwise ordinary people performing ordinary activities — Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze riding in buses, dining in restaurants, shopping in markets, studying at college, visiting hotels or walking on the street — who suddenly become victims of suicide bombings, shooting attacks and rocket attacks.

I have delved into their stories: how they were able to cope, or not able to cope, with experiencing acts of terrorism.

I was privileged to hear and tell the stories of 16 of the plaintiffs from the Arab Bank case. They were victims of some of the worst Palestinian terror attacks in the history of Israel, including the Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem, the Park Hotel Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Mike’s Place bombing in Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing. While these attacks have been etched into the memory of most Israelis, the experiences of the plaintiffs are more than a memory; they are the events that shaped the rest of their lives. For the plaintiffs, the verdict was likely a significant step in their emotional journey of healing and trying to make their voices heard.

As we approach the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, let’s remember those who have fallen due to acts of terror and pray for those who have survived and for their extended families. Let them hear our voices and understand that we have not forgotten. Let’s also hope and pray that those who have perpetrated, abetted and defended terrorism will take this court decision seriously and finally say, “I’m sorry.”

Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser is a fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her new book, “Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing,” looks at how 48 survivors of terrorism have moved forward from terrorism to hope and optimism.