How To Speak for the President Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on identity politics, the Middle East and Jewish-American pride

(Associated)

(Courtesy of The Associated)

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is proud to be a Jew.

While giving the address at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Keynote Event on Thursday, Dec. 8 to a packed room in the lavish Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor ballroom, Fleischer declared that he’s also proud to be an American.

He additionally takes great pride in having been the voice of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003 — an especially tumultuous time in the nation’s history.

This after having spent a year in Austin, Texas as spokesman for Bush’s initial presidential campaign and being asked  by one local if his name is “R-period, E-period.” And the gentle ribbing by Bush, who Fleischer acknowledged “occasionally has some trouble with the English language,” (endearingly) dubbing his press secretary “Ari Bob.”

Fleischer illuminated what it was to be tied to his own heritage — as the son of a Hungarian immigrant mother who was one of the last Jews to  escape Europe during the Holocaust — in Bush’s White House, which was largely “Evangelical Christian.”

The challenge was that it is essential for the press secretary to leave aside his or her own perspective when presenting daily briefings to the world press, Fleischer said. It is his or her job to speak on behalf of the president and express those views only with fervent, heartfelt pragmatism.

And yet, Fleischer is proudest still that a person with a Hebrew name — Jewish-American and child of an  immigrant — spoke for the president in this way during the time he was at the White House, be it for the nation’s media or broadcast via outlets such as (he was sure to note) Al Jazeera.

Fleischer wears no rosy-colored glasses when it comes to the “rapidly deteriorating” state of the Middle East, as he put it, vying as he does for the  protection the Jewish people in Israel.

“These are tough times in the Middle East,” Fleischer said. “When is it not?”

Fleischer was pessimistic about the notion for peace  between Israel and the Palestinians, which he referred to as “a quaint and nostalgic thing.”

He is disheartened by the prospect that whereas “every nation that ever sought to make peace with Israel found a willing, ready and able partner for peace” — citing the ilk  of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat and Jordan’s King  Hussein bin Talal — there is, in Fleischer’s opinion, currently an alarming lack of such a partner for Israel in a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians.

For context, Fleischer pointed out that there are roads, schools summer camps and other memorials in the Palestinian city of Ramallah — where there was joyous dancing on 9/11, he reminded the audience — named after the most destructive suicide bombers or “martyrs” that ever struck at Israel and the U.S.

It was a sobering, latter half of his speech in which Fleischer said, “There’s no higher call for the Jewish people than a call for peace … but Israel can’t negotiate with ‘no one’ … and so far, the Palestinians have been unable to deliver such a person.”

A reality, Fleischer fears, that was laid bare after Israel pulled out of Gaza. With full sovereignty over their land, one of the first acts by the Palestinians in that area was to destroy the area synagogues.

There is some flicker of light at the end of the dark tunnel for Fleischer, who revealed a “movement” happening “behind the scenes” in the Middle East, as various nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are beginning to focus their hostility less on Israel and more on Iran as the potential threat to regional solidarity.

Fleischer’s wish is that “President-elect Trump will recognize that we are on the verge of an unusual strategic realignment and that the United States should actively work for this realignment and support it.

“It’s in Israel’s interest, it’s in America’s interest and it’s in the interest of the Arab moderates for whom we have to place hope for the future in the Middle East.”

When asked by the JT about his thoughts on so-called “identity politics,” the notion that a person’s association with a larger group (race/religion/ gender/sexuality) profoundly informs his or her worldview, the high-profile policy wonk and media consultant was characteristically self-assured in responding.

“I’m tremendously proud of what this country has done in terms of its melting pot,” Fleischer said. “That we can love our heritage, be true to our heritage … I love that part of the United States. It’s who we are.”

Where Fleischer is concerned is when identity politics becomes more important than an individual’s connection to the nation in which she or he lives.

Fleischer envisions a stronger “national unity,” which he  believes can lead to more  national policies that might  alleviate terra firma problems that affect us all, regardless of personal affiliation, such as “doing the most we can to lift people out of poverty, which is really what we need.”

The confusion many are  experiencing in reconciling their individual, diverse heritage with that of a unified community is something Fleischer  understands all too well.

“What I’ve learned through my government service, particularly at the White House, is how the fabric of the nation still so deeply connects all of us,” he said.

Fleischer recounted a harrowing story in which, three days after 9/11, he faced the decision of whether to go to work that day and speak to the nation for the president … or observe Rosh Hashanah.

After consulting with his staff and rabbi, he decided to attend services in the morning and work the rest of the day. But at a briefing with the press later that day, he was asked a question about a meeting in the oval office that had earlier taken place and was able to  respond that he was unable to answer, as he was in synagogue that morning.

“It felt so good to say that on national television,” Fleischer beamed.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Send in the Clowns

jill maxBy: Jill Max, Chair, The Associated’s Israel Engagement Center

I hate the circus. The primary reason for these feelings stems from my childhood and my family’s requisite annual pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden to witness the “greatest show on Earth.” The smell of the menagerie was bad enough, but it was the clowns that really freaked me out. Fear of clowns: Coulrophobia (it’s a real thing, Google it).

When I discovered that we were going to hear from Tsour Shriqui, the Director of Medical Clowns, I immediately worried that he would bring one of their professionals with him. Fortunately, he was alone and thanks to him, I was able to see clowns through a different lens. Medical Clowns are actors who spend several months training before they are sent to work with patients in hospitals throughout Israel. There is extensive research about the positive effects on the patients they work with, particularly children, their parents and people with PTSD. The clowns are very busy these days, many have been sent to hospitals in the South like Barzilai and Saroka.

As we wound our way North through the hills to Nazareth, I was struck by the serenity and quiet in this largely Muslim Arab town. When we arrived at the Nazareth Industrial Park, perched on a mountaintop, we gravitated to the outdoor patio on the top floor and marveled at the breathtaking view.

The Nazareth Industrial Park was built 2 years ago to promote the development of industry in the Arab sector of Israel. It is the first Arab/Jewish industrial park. We learned about the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of 100 Jewish Federations, foundations, religious and service organizations dedicated to learning and raising awareness about Arab society and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

We had the opportunity to hear from Julia A-Zahar, a leading Arab businesswoman whose company, Al Arz Tahina produces some of the best tahini and halva in the country. She is also a community activist, lay leader and the Chair of the the Masira Fund, a program for the advancement of people with disabilities in Arab society. It was an inspiring afternoon, particularly following our experiences on our way out of the Tel Aviv in the morning.

As the bus continued to wind through the mountains, I watched the sun beginning to retreat behind both clouds and hills. We arrived at Baba Yona Ranch and were greeted enthusiastically by representatives from Dalton Winery. The weather was glorious and the wines were lovely; however, we soon learned that we were not exactly going to relax and enjoy a leisurely outdoor dinner. Instead, we were divided into three teams and tasked with preparing the meal ourselves. Under normal circumstances, I would have loved this activity, but I was tired, and soon realized there were too many cooks in this makeshift kitchen. I headed back to the wine tasting and had a great conversation about what we’d learned in Nazareth with some new friends from the Lehigh Valley Region of Pennsylvania.

It was the first time since my arrival that I momentarily stopped thinking about sirens. I looked up at the clear, starry sky, breathed in the clean air and let out an audible sigh of relief.

Jill is currently in Israel on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaigner’s Mission.

Happy Hour

By Jill Max, Chair, The Associated’s Israel Engagement Center

Jill Max 3Last night, I walked to the beautiful Tel Aviv port (don’t worry, there are plenty of places along the way to duck and cover) and had dinner with two Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) staff members and four young adults from Baltimore who are participating in the Onward Israel program that The Associated subsidizes. The eight-week program matches college-age students with internships in Tel Aviv (and many other cities) that suit their educational or career-related pursuits. I knew half of the group, and I knew that all of them had anxious parents at home who were eager for reassurance that their kids were all right. Each one had a different level of comfort with the situation, but I was so impressed with their maturity and their ability to see this as a unique opportunity for growth. One young man shared his newfound culinary skills, while one of the girls was proud of her ability to take the bus by herself to her internship. They all spoke candidly of the challenges of being here at this time, but none of them was considering leaving. Sadly, a few of the participants did decide to go home, and of course I support that decision. This is not an easy situation to deal with on a daily basis, particularly without your family around.

This morning I had the opportunity to make two site visits with the director of the program and the internship coordinator. Both of the interns we visited expressed how much they were learning and how beneficial they felt their experience was for them. Their supervisors clearly valued their work and were very enthusiastic about their contributions. I couldn’t stop thinking about how different these experiences were than most of the one’s I’ve heard about at home. These interns were really part of the team, and felt valued. It was a great way to start the day!

I spent a few hours this afternoon with a dear friend who lives in Tel Aviv. Abraham Silver is one of the most interesting people I know, as well as brilliant. Abraham made Aliyah in the early 80s, a pioneer from Brooklyn who became a date farmer in the Negev. That, however, is not where his story ends. Abraham served in the Israeli army and reserves as an elite paratrooper, he is an historian, and is arguably the best tour guide I’ve ever known. Oh, and by the way, he got an MA in Architecture about a decade ago, commuting between Tel Aviv and the University of Pennsylvania. I first met him when our family traveled to Israel on the Associated’s Family Mission in 2007. Since then, every time I come to this land, I make sure to see Abraham. He is my touchstone to what is really happening here, my guide to a uniquely Israeli perspective on the situation, and aside from all of that, a wonderful father and adoring husband. I should also mention that his wife, Alisa, is a world-renowned brain researcher and was recently named Teacher of the Year by Tel Aviv University. Unfortunately, Abraham and his seven-year-old twins, Shiri and Libby were unable to attend the ceremony, due to the red alert.

It was 5:20 in Tel Aviv, officially Happy Hour, and I’d returned to the pool to relax and do some reading before my mission officially began this evening. The wi-fi was spotty, so I had trouble connecting to both my email and Facebook, but I was feeling content, enjoying my glass of wine and people watching by the pool. I had just begun to return an email, and as I was typing, the sirens started blaring. Several people around me were blissfully sleeping, and I moved efficiently from one to the next repeating, “sirens, sirens, get up, get up” (Note to self: I am a pretty cool cucumber in an emergency). The lifeguard quickly directed us to the stairwell, and we made our way down three floors. Once again, I had the opportunity to meet new people and to hear everyone’s stories about their experiences with the sirens thus far. After about 10 minutes, I was back in my chair (I took the wine with me) and enjoying the breathtaking view as the sun began its daily descent. The lifeguard confirmed that the Iron Dome intercepted two missiles over Tel Aviv. “Don’t worry, please enjoy your vacation: the Iron Dome has got us covered,” he assured me.

I’m sleeping with my balcony door open tonight, as I did last night. There’s a beautiful breeze and I find the sound of the waves soothing. And yes, it is easier to hear the sirens.

 Jill is currently in Israel on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaigner’s Mission. 

International Moishe Houses Gather In Odessa

Moishe House

By: Marina Moldavanskaya

Last week, Odessa was proud to host the international conference for Russian-speaking Moishe Houses. Yevgeniy Klig, the Director of Russian-speaking Jewish Programming shared, “The conference was comprised of the residents of all Russian-speaking Moishe Houses in the former Soviet Union and the United States. The purpose of the conference was to provide an opportunity for the residents to share experiences of their communities, to learn new skills and information from professional trainers and other Moishe Houses and, of course, to establish deep friendships and relationships that will lead to better relations between young adult Jewish communities in different cities.”

The program included a history of Moishe House as well as a review of goals and objectives. The participants had a chance to get to know the Russian-speaking American Moishe Houses that were successful in engaging young adults from Russian-speaking families in New York and Chicago. The conference aimed to assist Moishe House residents in creating projects, planning volunteer programs, making budgets and attracting visitors.

Odessa Moishe House opened in November 2012 with four residents, yet, it very quickly proved to be a strong community space for young adults. Each month, the residents organize a minimum of seven programs. In addition, the Odessa Moishe House received the award for the Best Moishe House in April 2013, topping 54 other houses.

Odessa Hosts 2013 Limmud Conference

2013 LimmudBy: Marina Moldavanskaya

For the third time, Odessa was proud to host this month’s Limmud Conference. Limmud is a celebration of Jewish education and relationship building through unique lectures, trainings, workshops, discussions, meetings, concerts, discos, night gatherings and more.

This year, the Limmud Conference was dedicated to the connections between Odessa and Tel Aviv as well as the 140th anniversary of Chaim Nahman Bialik. Many families from Odessa moved to Israel and ultimately settled in Tel Aviv; therefore, the city has absorbed Odessa architecture and culture. The first mayor of Tel Aviv was Meir Dizengoff who lived, studied and joined the Zionist movement in Odessa. After Dizengoff became the head of the town planning in 1911, Dizengoff was elected mayor when Tel Aviv was recognized as a city. Chaim Nahman Bialik is a very important model for the Jewish people in Odessa and worldwide. A Jewish poet who wrote both in Hebrew and Yiddish, Bialik was one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry and was eventually recognized as Israel’s national poet. Limmud 2013

Four hundred people from the former Soviet Union took part in the conference. The participants had the wonderful opportunity to attend lectures of many outstanding scientists, artists, journalists and politicians from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Belarussia and Israel.

Jewish organizations in Odessa actively participated in the Limmud conference. JCC Migdal was a key partner of the conference as their staff was responsible for the logistics of the program. They coordinated the participants of the southern region and provided many of the speakers. JCC Beit Grand offered the Limmud conference participants many interesting hand-on projects in their studios and organized the Klezmer musical and stand-up comic event, all of which highlighted Odessa’s thriving community and proud Jewish history.

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

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.