A View From Israel

Turning from mourning to celebration

Leah Garber - May 1, 2017

Thanks to you I understand what I received from our country, but more so, what I need to give back,” Hadar Goldin Z”L

Hadar Goldin was killed on Aug. 1, 2014, during one of Operation Protective Edge’s 72-hour ceasefires. Despite the break in hostilities, Hamas terrorists went ahead and ambushed Hadar and two of his soldiers coming out of an attack tunnel. The three were killed on the spot, and the terrorists escaped with Hadar’s body back into the tunnel.

Hadar’s remains are still held captive by Hamas. The quote at the beginning of this piece was part of a letter he had written to his parents from Poland during a March of the Living journey.

 

Today, Israel and the Jewish world observes Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s national Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. Ceremonies nationwide honor the 26,661 servicemen and victims of terror who had fallen since 1860, 97 of them since last Yom Hazikaron.

This past year was yet another year full of disappointment and frustration. Sadly we see our dream for peace, or at least some sort of agreement, draw away and sink in the dusty air of lost hopes.

Hannah Bladon, 21, an exchange student at Hebrew University from London is one of the most recent victims. A Palestinian passenger on the light rail in Jerusalem stabbed her to death on Erev Pesach, the eve of Passover. Another hope—lost.

We have so much in common with our Palestinian neighbors, mostly young men and women, and it fuels our disappointment and frustration. When we communicate, we speak a common language, use the same currency, ride the same public transportation, bear children at the same hospitals, sit side by side at same universities and breathe the same air.

We share a love for the same land but we don’t share the same dream. We aspire to a different future. We teach our children to love the other, to reach out to the other and to find paths to peace. To reconcile, to live as neighbors in peace. To live!

This vicious cycle of hatred, violence and demonization is expanding, reaching new countries. It contaminates peaceful cities, not familiar with this kind of fear. It has entered their homes and conquered their calm routine.

Terror has reached North America and deepened its presence in Europe. It’s cry of hate has replaced the sounds celebration and music at festivals and in clubs with screams of horror, a cry of death.

During our bloody history of wars and terror attacks, we lost some of our best. Innocent citizens, committed soldiers, all victims, each with a name, with unfulfilled dreams, desires and a future that will never be.

They have families. Families that are forced to carry on with their lives accompanied by a dark shadow, an everlasting black cloud that hovers nearby, never leaving. One that constantly reminds them, like a phantom pain of what’s missing. Left behind are parents, siblings, spouses and children reeling in pain, fighting one day at a time to get out of bed, to smile, breath, live. And for many, this is asking the impossible.

At 11 a.m. today the entire state of Israel paused in silence for two minutes, as a siren wailed across the country, like a single cry carried in the wind.

Standing silent for two sacred minutes on a bustling street in downtown Jerusalem on this holy day is a moment I cherish. Today my entire Jewish Israeli being is so complete, so in place, hurting with my brothers and sisters, bending my head in gratitude for those who made the ultimate sacrifices, whispering a prayer for peace.

And then, as the sun sets with our tears and sorrow, the most unreasonable yet powerful transition happens: Israel sheds its grief to put on the joy of Yom Ha’atzmaut, celebrating our 69th year of miraculous independence, strength, and existence.

Together we built a powerful magnificent Jewish state and together, united we stand remembering our heroes, sons and daughters who have died in the long battle of protecting our home. And together we shall raise our eyes with great hopes for our beloved Israel to reach peace, a peace that shall embrace us and the rest of the world with its glory.

These sacred two days are our days, the days we cry and rejoice, but it must be something we do together, united, across the Jewish world. These two days, more than anything, symbolizes our everlasting ties and eternal bond.

“When you’ll die,
something of yours, something of yours in me
will die with you, will die with you.

Because all of us, yes all of us
area all one living human tissue
and if one of us
goes from us
something dies in us –
and something, stays with him” / One Human Tissue, Moti Hamer

 

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

May he who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen.

 


 

Memory that carries us back—and forward

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The Talmud in Ta’anit tells the following story:

Honi the Wise One, also known as Honi the Circle Maker, was taking a walk when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another 70 years to enjoy the fruit of this tree”?

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

One of the core values of Jewish life is continuity. We acknowledge our existence as part of a long chain with a strong link both to our collective past, and to our joint future.

This long, endless chain comes with benefits as well as obligations. Being part of this remarkable bond is a privilege, but one that comes with commitments.  It’s to appreciate the fruit trees of all kinds, spiritual and physical, that we found when coming to this world, while planting and nurturing new ones for future generations.

This is what kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh— all of Israel is responsible for one another, means.

In just a few days the Jewish people will sit around beautiful Pesach seder tables and read through the Haggadah, the book that guides us through our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt, their suffering and hardship, on through their becoming a people and receiving the law at Mt. Sinai.

In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he had left Egypt:  as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 6, 23)

 

Avrham Infeld, one of my favorite mentors, always says that the Jewish people don’t have history, we have memory, a shared memory. Memory is something you personally experience, it’s part of who and what you are, it is the emotional resonance of things that have touched you, things that left an impression and have stayed with you.  History, on the other hand, is something about which you learn, it is the telling and ordering of events that have happened to others.

The Haggadah teaches us to remember that we were right there, with our suffering ancestors in Egypt, alongside them when they witnessed the miraculous redemption from exile, and standing side by side at Sinai when we became a nation.

There at Sinai we first stood together as a people, and from that point on, we considered ourselves a nation.  We have stood together since, held together by a long, shared memory.

We often think of miracles as ending in biblical times, but our journey through memory includes modern ones, as well. As it says in Hatikvah, to be a free people in our own land.  We are a sovereign people celebrating our Jewish memory in many different ways, in a vibrant, pluralistic nation. Around the world, Jews today are free to express their Jewish identity through values and tradition as they see fit, freely, publicly, in peaceful times and in times of threats.

This has not always been so, and we do not have to look back very far into our memory to recall the horrifying dark times during the Shoah, when six million of us were murdered.

On Monday night, the 14th of Nisan we commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This Jewish resistance, made up of young socialists, communists, and Zionists, arose to oppose the Nazis’ efforts to transport the ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. Although poorly armed, the young fighters held out for almost a month before German troops crushed them. To avoid capture, Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the uprising, took poison along with several of his comrades. Anielewicz departed the world so young, yet left behind so much. In “planting” the seeds for his carob tree, he gave us, the generations that have come since, the fruit of Jewish resilience, heroism, determination and pride. That carob tree lives and grows today, most notably in the state of Israel. We saw it, too, in the support JCCs received when they were under threat. Anielewicz’s carob tree inspires us today, and will continue to do so into the future.

Our memory guides us in striving to be what we can and should be. And, as did the carob planter—it points the way for what we will be in 70 years to come and for all the days beyond.

Happy Pesach 

 


 

A View from Jerusalem (March 2017)

Next week the Jewish world will celebrate Purim, a holiday that introduces the concept of anti-Semitism and the demonization of the Jews, whose laws are different from the people of Persia, where they live.

There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples and in all the provinces of your empire. Their folkways are different from those of any other people and they do not obey the laws of the king. It is not becoming to the king to tolerate them.” (Megillah Esther 3:8)

This quote, attributed to Haman, resonates throughout all of Jewish history. Haman, the king’s vizier, was incensed that among the 127 nations that occupied ancient Persia, there was only one that kept its own heritage, tradition, language and dress. Hamman drafted a royal order encouraging a bloodbath and the killing of the Jews on the 15th day of the month of Adar, the day we now celebrate as Purim.

And a month later, the Jewish world will celebrate another great holiday—Pesach. Through the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were a recognizably different nation because they lived a distinctly different life. They retained their national identity so that they would not assimilate.

What later stirred up Hamman’s anger in Persia was exactly what had kept the Israelites in Egypt as a nation. And it has sustained us ever since.

Haman held a deep understanding of our Jewish story. He understood that the survival and triumph of Jews was born of our persistence, determination, unity and commitment to tradition and heritage.

Seeing Mordechai lead the Jews, who held fast to their beliefs and customs as a unified people, meant one thing to Haman—we could not be defeated. And of course, anyone who has attended a raucous Purim celebration knows that we weren’t.

Jews of 2017 are still scattered. Seventy-two years after the Holocaust, the number of Jews worldwide is now approaching what it was before World War II. There are nearly 16 million Jews globally, with Jews living outside of Israel and North America in countries such as France, Latin America, Russia, Australia, Africa, South Africa, Ukraine, Hungary, Iran, Asia, Romania, New Zealand, Morocco, India and others. Many of these Jews suffer from anti-Semitic outbreaks, hatred and terror.

It’s unfortunate, and so sad that anti-Semitism still exists.  It is a concept that should have vanished and should not exist in a world where pluralism, liberalism, human rights and equality are valued.

Jews are still scattered, yet we still hold onto our beliefs and customs as a unified people, something that still upsets those who cannot tolerate people who are both involved and active citizens in North America, yet committed to their tradition and heritage.

More than 100 bomb threats have been phoned into more than 81 locations. Most have been JCCs, hubs of pluralism, diversity and acceptance. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and violated, and we see anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head as hatred and fear spreads.  Such narrow-minded individuals, who perpetrate these acts, do not understand how we can be scattered yet united. They do not understand that we have flourished under oppression, and risen above it. It is what kept us strive through Dark Ages.

The beauty of our times, as opposed to when Mordechai and Queen Esther lived, is that most Jews today have the ability to choose where to live, and how to live their lives as Jews. The story of India’s Bnei Menashe beautifully tells that story of today, their lifelong dream symbolically fulfilled right before Purim.

Operation Menashe 2017 was launched last week when a group of Bnei Menashe arrived in Israel from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, India.  The goal over the next 12 months is to bring 600 members of the Bnei Menashe from India to our Jewish homeland.

The Bnei Menashe trace their heritage to tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 lost tribes exiled from the land of Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire. Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so long, the Bnei Menashe continued to preserve the ways of their ancestors, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, adhering to the laws of family purity and undoubtedly arguing a lot among themselves.

Despite being scattered, we have the ability and persistence to make Jewish choices while living among others, respectfully. We have done so while preserving a rich Jewish heritage and culture. This wasn’t a notion Haman could accept. He must have been terrified of an independent, different culture, an “other” among his own people. He couldn’t tolerate that, any more than modern-day anti-Semites can.

A month from now we will read from Pesach’s Haggadah—“The more the Israelites were oppressed the more they grew.”

May we continue to grow and flourish in strength, spirit, beauty and our ability to repair the world, while sharing our values with others in our communities. At the same time, we proudly preserve our traditions and above all, stay united and committed to ourselves, the Jewish nation.  Not Haman, nor Pharoah, nor any modern-day anti-Semite will ever defeat us.

Thinking of you and sending you my prayers for a happy and safe Purim to be followed by many calls asking to join your JCC, a true center for acceptance, tolerance and values!

Shabbat shalom,

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


 

A Maccabean dream made for our times – A View From Jerusalem

February 14, 2017

Today, Feb. 14 marks 121 years since the publication of Theodor Herzl’s landmark publication, Der Judenstaat, also known as The Jewish State.” In it, Herzl envisioned the founding of a future independent Jewish state during the 20th century.

“The Jewish State” is considered one of the most important texts of early Zionism, where Herzl argues that the best way to avoid anti-Semitism in Europe is to create an independent Jewish state.

Fifty-two years later, Herzl’s vision became a reality when Israel was established as an independent nation – the most miraculous Jewish creation in modern days.

Miraculous as this creation may be, it is constantly challenged – by both internal debates and external conflicts. Those outside, question our very basic right to exist. To be.

Yet they are not the only voices of dissent. There are those who question the very limits of our sovereignty. And those voices do not come solely from outside our nation. The boundaries of what we as a sovereign state can or cannot do are being considered through a lens that doesn’t necessarily consider facts. Others judge us through narrow political interests, often ignoring what their own countries’ actions within and beyond their borders throughout history.

These past few weeks have been rough. Attempts to clarify our Jewish versus our democratic identity took shape as vocal demonstrations of all kinds. From the legitimacy to annex territories, to the painful need to evacuate Jews from these lands – as when 30 families were evacuated from Amona after days of harsh riots were just some expressions of this dichotomy. The ultra-Orthodox once again blocked highways to protest against the military police’s attempts to locate a draft dodger, part of the state’s attempt to apply the impetus of army duty equally. And a gallery that housed a controversial political organization was closed, yet another examination of free speech and its limits.

Being a sovereign state, one that recognizes the rights of all its citizens and assumes its place among the family of nations is a challenging, fascinating task with ongoing obstacles. Sometimes they even threaten our state’s very existence, but they also have the ability to raise us up, carry us as a nation, and help us find our unique identity based on core Jewish values of respecting humanity, grace, and justice.

Herzl’s call for sovereignty was a courageous one. His ability to see beyond the present was prophetic. He was able to rise above political interests and envision the future Jewish state. “The Jews who wish for a state will have it,” he wrote.  “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.”

One of the greatest outcomes of being a sovereign is the notion that all Jews, whether in Israel or elsewhere, no matter how connected or disengaged, have a birthright to be part of our Jewish creation, to celebrate it and its symbols, and to cherish its heritage.

Or as Herzl wrote: “Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again.”

And the Maccabeans, in a very modern form, rose again.

This coming July, the Jewish world will celebrate for the 20th time the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. The world’s largest Jewish athletic completion emphasize the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. Over 10,000 Jewish athletes from around world, and more than 70 delegations, including Ethiopia, Finland, and Thailand, to name a few of the less-expected participants, will march together at the opening ceremony.

As at every Maccabiah before, the JCC Movement will join the celebrations, cheering our own athletes from the United States and Canada – as well as Jewish athleticism from around the globe. We will put aside internal debates and arguments, and for two weeks focus on all that is great in our nation – the Jewish nation.

The Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem will feature men and women of all ages, colors, cultures and backgrounds, united in their love for sports, and pride in their Jewish culture. They will sing Hatikvah, our national anthem together, paying homage to Herzl’s dream, one that the Jewish people turned into a reality.

I invite you to join us this summer in Israel, trumpet our athletes, enjoy Israel’s most beautiful sites and be part of one of the most exciting moments the Jewish people can have together.

Read here to learn more about this special event or contact me directly.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

 

 


 

Light onto the Nations 

December 23, 2016

Tomorrow night the Jewish world will light the first candle of Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating the Jewish rebellion against their Assyrian-Greek oppressors. Hanukkah has come to symbolize our everlasting struggle against persecution throughout our shared history.

Jewish identity, Jewish values and preserving the Jewish tradition are what the Maccabees fought for. More than 2,000 years after the story of the Maccabees, we continue to face existential threats and persecution. And we continue to hope that our enemies will one day become our friends, or at least better neighbors.

But until they do, we cherish our human values and remember the days when six million of our own perished, when an existential threat led those who survived to flee their homes, leaving behind horror, carrying with them nothing but misery and pain.

Only 140 miles separate Jerusalem from Damascus; a little more than doubling that and you get the distance between our capital and Aleppo, once a beautiful city in northern Syria. Today Aleppo is a heaping ruin, a sad memory of lost glory, where genocide takes place.  Where oppression is today’s reality.

Since March 2011, a civil war grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring and escalated to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The country as we know it is gone. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research released an estimate of 470,000 killed, with 1.9 million wounded (with a total of 11.5 percent of the entire population either wounded or killed) and more than one million fleeing their bloody homeland for an uncertain future elsewhere.

Assyrians are the villains of our Hanukkah story, ancient forebears of today’s Syria. But the Syrian people today aren’t our enemy. Yes, their government is—its declared intention proves so. The many wars between both nations testify to that. But the children of Syria aren’t. The innocent men and women suffering from constant bombings aren’t, the orphan babies and the homeless elderly aren’t. They are innocent victims of a brutal tyrant, they are human beings and they are our neighbors.

Since the war in Syria began, thousands of its wounded have crossed our border and received medical treatment in Israel, knowing by doing that, the Assad regime may kill them upon their return home.

In addition, Israelis have launched Facebook campaigns, calling for action in the forms of public prayers and donations to aid the people of Syria.

Tomorrow night, Hanukkah’s first candle lighting, a large gathering is planned in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, as an act of solidarity with the people of Syria. This will also be an opportunity to collect clothing and toys from the many expected to participate, to then be shipped to the people of Syria.

Since 2013 different Israeli delegations have landed on the shores of Europe, assisting in the rescue of refugees, carrying them to safe grounds, welcoming them to their future, to life.

Israel is not alone in these efforts—the Jewish world once again demonstrates its core value of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. Jews around the globe have launched and participated in different campaigns to help the people of Aleppo, raising money for food, blankets, and formulas for babies, medical supplies, and hope.

In a week where the Christian world is getting ready to celebrate its major holiday, 12 people were killed and 48 were wounded, 11 critically, in Berlin’s Christmas market, a result of merciless terror. We must believe that although evil and oppression exist, kindness and mercy will overcome. We see proof in our Hanukkah story, in how today we assist the descendants of our ancient tormentors.

In the next eight nights, close to 16 million Jews worldwide will light Hanukkah candles. It is my hope that these millions of candles will spread light to overcome the darkness of any form and shape. That this light will illuminate the beauty of mankind, of all races, colors, and religion. This is our Jewish flame—the flame of hope, the flame of peace, the flame of humanity.

Shabbat shalom and happy Hanukkah!

Leah Garber

Vice President, Director, JCC Israel Center

 

A letter from Israel – November 30, 2016

Dear Friends,

In Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, released only weeks before his death, Cohen sings in Hebrew and English with the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue choir, and its cantor, Gideon Y. Zelermyer,” Hineni, hineni ("here I am") I'm ready, my lord.”

Hineni, or “hear I am,” is just one word in Hebrew, yet so powerful. It is Abraham’s response when God calls out to him.  I'm here, I'm present, in body and spirit, I'm committed, I'm ready. Hineni!

We are blessed with plenty, a profusion of riches—material and emotional.. In tomorrow's Torah portion, Toldot (generations), Isaac blesses Jacob: "God give you of heaven's dew, of earth's bounty; abundant grain and new wine." Genesis, 27-28. We live that promise.

But right now, in Israel, not everyone is so lucky. So this Friday we have the privilege to take this blessing and  realize it for those who lost their homes in the brutal fires that have swept through our country. This is our call to be hineni. This is how we can be present and committed and accounted for. We can do this by reaching out, and with open hearts and resources, begin to repair the damage. Haifa, in particular, needs assistance, and I’ve collected information about the Haifa Emergency Foundation if you wish to contribute.

Last Friday was a Black Friday in Israel. Not like the huge post-Thanksgiving sale day that has spread from the United States around the globe. Here in Israel, black smoked clouds literally covered our bright skies as wild flames waged across the country.

Our skies today are gray; rain and cold winds clear the ashes and saturate our dry, dusty air.

Last week's flames consumed thousands of trees and homes. May tonight’skindling of the Shabbat flames represent instead of destruction, hope. Let it draw us together in solidarity and kindness, as it ushers in and illuminates the month of Kislev, the month of light and miracles and hope.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

New Beginnings – November 2016

Today, exactly 76 years ago, on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan 1940 the Nazi government issued the order to gather all Jews in Warsaw into the Warsaw Ghetto. This was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, with more than 400,000 Jews.

In February 1944 the ghetto was destroyed. Most of the remaining Jews were sent to the Treblinka death camp, and the Jewish community of Warsaw died with it.

Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Europe’s Jewish population was decimated, with only 10 percent of Poland’s Jews surviving the horrors.

Many of the survivors fled the ashen soil of Europe, leaving behind memories blackened by flames and unfulfilled dreams, to find refuge in Palestine (to become the land of Israel three years later) or elsewhere, many in North America.

This is our story—the story of how brothers and sisters found themselves separated by the great ocean, with their feet newly planted on soil very foreign to them, in Israel America, Europe and other parts of the world.

We not only stood together at Mount Sinai where we became a nation, but through centuries of shared history, faith, culture and shared destiny, we are bound together. Circumstance and the fate conspired, led us to where we are today, scattered around the world.

North America Jewry, comprising more than six million Jews, many of whom are Shoah survivors or the descendants, represents almost half of world Jewry. Half of our nation, a half Israelis consider brothers and sisters whom share our DNA and destiny.

This week the United States ended one of the most fascinating, wild and troubling elections it has ever held.

Israel followed these elections carefully— its politicians staying wisely this time around at a remove—knowing that whoever the next president was to be, that person would have an enormous impact on the relationship between our two nations.

We hope that President-elect Donald Trump will continue in the bipartisan tradition of his predecessors, recognizing the special bond between his great nation and ours.

North America Jewry has always been there for the Jewish state, supporting, lobbying, encouraging and questioning.

However the relationship is dynamic. In six months Israel will celebrate 69 years of independence. During the years of building and framing a Jewish state, world Jewry examined its connection and commitment to Israel.  American Jews have maintained a long-standing relationship with the Jewish homeland. Over the years, their connection has produced billions of dollars in ongoing philanthropic assistance, a powerful and effective pro-Israel lobby, tens of thousands of visits annually, a steady stream of olim (those who make aliyah, and choose to live in Israel permanently) and other examples of contact and support.

But these feelings of connection may be weakening, as a younger generation becomes more indifferent, less involved, much more critical and less passionate about Israel. On the upside, North America Jewry no longer looks to bond with Israel and with Israelis based on a narrative of crisis, but rather through deeper connections, looking to have a genuine, authentic relationship with Israel. One that is based on honest open dialogs and pride.

Almost a quarter of North American Jewry is connected to Jewish Community Centers. So those challenges and the distancing we’ve seen, offer opportunities for JCCs to bridge existing gaps.

JCCs throughout North America must reexamine the place of Israel in their mission and program, redouble efforts on behalf of the members they serve, and become more active players in the larger community arena as well.

JCC Association initiated the conversations that led to creating its Vision and Statement of Principles for the 21stCentury for the JCC Movement at the 2010 Biennial in Atlanta. One of the principles states that “Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people, linking us to our past and to Jews around the world today.”

Israel is, and must remain, central to our understanding of Jewish identity and peoplehood.  JCCs have a unique ability, and responsibility to create real and meaningful connections to Israel for their members and for the larger community.

In 1789 Congregation Beth Shalome in Richmond, Virginia wrote a prayer for the government of the United States of America, perhaps the first written for the new U.S. government. We see its traces in prayers recited across Jewish congregations of all denominations each Shabbat:

El Tseva’ot, You have provided peace and quiet for the heart of our government;
You have placed the President of the United States to act as our leader;
Through prayer we humble ourselves before You,
To our supplications lend an ear and rescue us.

Today we join you in your prayers, hoping for the success of the new president, a success that will have great impact not only on the future of the United States, but on Israel, and the entire world.

Shabbat shalom,

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

 


 

White, Gold, Rainbow and everything in between. The many colors of Israel this week - June 10, 2016

Tomorrow the Jewish world will dress in festive white in honor of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).

It is noteworthy that the holiday is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. The sages point out that it is the giving, not the receiving, that makes this holiday significant. The Torah, the living book and a way of life points out the importance and emphasis of giving.

The value of giving and sharing is also evident in Shavuot’s other name—The Festival of First Fruits, or Chag Habikurim, when we celebrate bringing an offering of the first harvest to the priests in Jerusalem.

Close to 2000 years have passed since the last priest in Jerusalem was brought with the first fruits, but the City of Gold is still the heart of the Jewish world, the capital of modern Israel and the source of Jewish longing and yearning.

Jerusalem celebrated 49 years this week since it was united, a city of holiness and one rife with political baggage—where every stone whispers its own story, a story carried by mountain winds since the fourth millennium BCE.

Jerusalem’s gold and Shavuot’s white blend, in Tel Aviv’s rainbow as the “World’s Best Gay Travel Destination” hosted the Gay Pride Parade on June 3, where 200,000 people marched together, celebrating life, free will, democracy and acceptance in the First Hebrew City. As throngs celebrated the living proof of these liberal ideals, Israel could leave behind the one-dimensional tension and politics with which the rest of the world dresses it.

Among the revelers, marched a JCC Israel Center LGBTQ Boarding Pass group representing JCCs from across North America. Our JCC group wrapped itself with Jerusalem’s gold, Tel Aviv’s rainbow colors and all the other colors in between, representing Israel’s multifaceted palette.

Israel is used to flipping from festivity to grief. In between these bright festive colors, transparent tears sparkle, reminding us of loss and pain. Of our complexed reality.

As Tel Aviv awakes from its joyful celebrations, a horrifying cry rips off this beauty, when late Wednesday night, at one of Tel Aviv’s busiest entertainment centers, two terrorists opened fire, shooting in all directions, claiming four lives and wounding 16. Israel is hurting this week, crying for the waste of human lives, weeping for the endless sorrow, furious with our neighbors that insist on dragging us back again to this vicious bloody cycle and above all, we mourn with four new bereaved families whilst embracing them with love and support.

Last night my family and I joined a special Shavuot eve learning, along with Israelis of all colors, all streams and all backgrounds, celebrating Jewish pluralism and studying in memory of Sgt. Oron Shaul, 22, killed in action in the Gaza Strip on July 20, 2014 and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old soldier in the Givati Brigade commando unit, killed a few short weeks later on August 1st 2014. Both were killed during operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Two other soldiers were killed along with Hadar, but his body was captured by Hamas.

Both Oron’s and Hadar’s bodies were apparently seized by Hamas and have been held in the Gaza Strip ever since, leaving two desperate, hurting families in limbo and everlasting misery.

Hadar’s family held this special gathering in memory of their beloved son and of Oron, now bonded forever, to raise awareness, spread love, unity and values. Attributes so identified with both.

While the streets of Tel Aviv remain adorned with party ornaments and colorful rainbow flags and as the City of Gold gets ready for a white, spiritual Shavuot, the sun sets and Leah Goldin with Zehava Shaul, mothers of Hadar and Oron, light Shabbat candles, praying for their sons’ bodies to be returned. Both boys gave the world so much in their 20-some years. Their families want to give back to them a final, small gift—the human right to be buried with honor and dignity. For now, the Shavuot study in their honor will have to do.

Another remarkable week in Israel came to an end. Shabbat with its glory and majesty wraps the land of the Jews with colors of pluralism, acceptances, love, prayers and hope. Always with hope.

Shabbat shalom and happy Shavuot!

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Association Israel Office


 

A Nation in Mourning  -  May 11, 2016

Today, Israel and the Jewish world observes Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s national Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. Ceremonies nationwide honor the 23,447 servicemen and victims of terror who had fallen since 1860.

Since Yom Hazikaron last year, another difficult year has passed, one where individual terrorists introduced us to a new term, a bloody one-knife-drawing. This was a year when Palestinian teenagers became a threat. When a kitchen knife, placed alongside schoolbooks in bag packs made them a threat to soldiers, to innocent civilians, to normality.

These very young terrorists woke up one morning deciding that today would be their last. Deciding we are all their enemies, killing with their bare hands any hope for peace.

We have much in common with these young men and women. We speak a common language, use the same currency, ride the same public transportation, bear children at the same hospitals and breathe the same air. We share a love of the same land. But we don’t share the same dream; and we aspire to a different future. We teach our children to love the other, to reach out to the other and to find paths for peace. To reconcile, to live side by side. To live!

In January of this year, 17-year-old Renana Meir lost her mother, Daphna Meir, who was killed by a teenage Palestinian inside her own home in front of her children. She had six. Last month Renana and her father were invited by the Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations to address that body, where Renana said:

“I have never intentionally harmed another person. It has never occurred to me to mistreat another human being just because he/she looks or thinks differently. I have never taken out my frustrations on people who haven’t done anything to me. I was not raised that way. I was raised to love the other. To respect all people, to love unconditionally, and to see each and every person as a human being. Three months ago, my mother was murdered. A Palestinian teenager came into my house and killed her in front of me and my siblings. It is hard to express in words how deep the pain is, how unbearable the longing is for my mother; and how this longing breaks the heart and the soul. And in spite of this, it would never occur to me to hurt another person. I do not hate or support hatred.  No amount of frustration justifies hurting another person. With broken hearts we came here today to ask for your help. Help us by being patient. Help us create peace through love. Help us all to see that there is good in everyone.”

Every victim killed has a name. They all had unfulfilled dreams, open desires and a future that didn’t reach its potential. They had families. Families that are forced to carry on with their lives followed by a dark shadow, one that will never leave them. One that constantly reminds them, like phantom pain, of what’s missing. They all have parents, children, husbands, wives, lovers who are left to live a life of pain, struggling each day to get out of bed, to smile, to breathe, to live. And for many, this is asking the impossible.

These families don’t need a special day of remembrance. For them, every day is Yom Hazikaron.

At 11 a.m. on Yom Hazikaron, the entire state paused in silence for two minutes, as a siren wailed across the country, like a single cry carried in the wind.  A country is in mourning.

Year after year, I join my husband to visit a bereaved family whom I really don’t know, but over the years I’ve become acquainted with through these visits. Their son Roni Levi, who served with my husband, fell in the second Lebanon war in 1982. Roni was 19 years old when he was killed, and since that moment, his entire family was changed forever. Roni’s mother lost her will to live, and dragged herself through life day after day for 32 years, until surrendering to cancer shortly after Yom Hazikaron two years ago, when I saw her last.

Visiting a family you don’t really know, but feeling so connected to them, is a powerful feeling. One that captures the essence of being Israeli. A feeling of unity, of being part of the whole, of one family.

And then, as the sun sets, and with it our tears and sorrow, the most unreasonable yet powerful transition happens: The state of Israel casts off its grief, adorning itself in the joy of Yom Ha’atzmaut.  This year is our 68th miraculous year since independence, a testament to our strength and endurance. We exist.

Certainly, after such a painful year, our hope for peace remains out of our grasp. And yet Jews across the world pray for peace three times a day, every day, never losing hope.

Together we built a powerful magnificent Jewish state, and together, we stand united, remembering our heroes, sons and daughters— all those who have died in the long battle of protecting our home.

 

“וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת—לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.     Isaiah Chapter 2

 

Leah Garber

Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

leah@jcca.org


 

A Mighty Nation

Some 14 million Jews worldwide comprise the Jewish nation and will celebrate our nation’s birth tomorrow night, when we sit at the seder table to celebrate the first night of Pesach. Together we will read from the Haggadah: “And there they became a mighty nation”.

What defines a nation and more so, what makes a nation mighty?

The greatness of the Israelites in Egypt was their ability to stay united, overcome hardships and retain their humanity. Today, nearly 3,500 years later, are we still mighty? No doubt we have built a great modern, advanced country that is leading the world in many ways. We have formed a society that leans on Jewish values, strives for social justice and aspires to be united but not uniformed.

In two weeks we will celebrate Israel’s 68th year of independence. The Jewish world will march in parades, dance to Israeli music, serve Israeli dishes and rejoice for our miraculous Jewish state.

And Israel will celebrate its independence by honoring its most outstanding members, people who have contributed more than others to the development, justice and strength of our country.

Joining other Israel Prize laureates, will be Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, who will accept this prestigious honor from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. This prize acknowledges his lifetime achievement for his contribution in revolutionizing care facilities for Israelis with special needs.

Doron Almog, a retired Israel Defense Forces major general, lost his eldest son Eran who was born with severe autism and developmental handicaps to Castleman’s disease in 2007. Over the past two decades, Almog has worked extensively with ALEH, an organization operating state-of-the-art rehabilitative villages for Israelis with severe disabilities.

Almog has taken part in some of Israel’s most daring military operations, but claims that “Taking care of my boy,” is the most immense challenge he had ever faced. Eran had never said “Dad” or “Mom” but nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, Almog says, “Raising Eran has made me a better human being. By constantly being forced to ask myself what he needs, I became a more sensitive person, more attuned to those with limitations.”

Over the years, Almog has devoted energy not only to caring for his own son, but also to improving the welfare of all children in Israel with severe disabilities—through his involvement in Aleh.

In Almog’s eulogy for his son, he mentioned Eran’s unwritten will and legacy. “You were the greatest teacher I ever had in my life. You taught me unconditional love, about giving without limits, about the true measure of how to cope with difficultieseven those of inconceivable standards. You silently asked that I serve as your voice, that I speak in your name everywhere in the world, that I cry out on behalf of the weakest members in society to demand the rights they deserve, that I try to effect real change— I could only make that happen with the strength of the power you bequeathed me“.

Aleh, in many ways, is a microcosm of Israel—a beautiful peaceful oasis in the Negev desert, housing patients from all sectors of society, including secular, Orthodox and haredi Jews, as well as those who are Israeli born along with new immigrants. Bedouins, Arabs and other minorities make up its constituents. And side-by-side, all sectors of society work tirelessly to offer best, most respectful treatment to those in need.

Many of our JCC groups visit this oasis while visiting Aleh as part of their Israel trips. There they get to meet amazing people, patients, staff and volunteers, who demonstrate on a daily basis what a mighty nation looks like.

A mighty nation is a nation that treats all its members with equality, compassion, respect and recognition. A mighty nation recognizes the needs of its most vulnerable residents.

We will read again on Friday night that we were redeemed from Egypt, successfully built a nation, stood against evil and danger, threats and horrors and after wondering, dreaming, praying and fighting, we formed a state, a wonderful home for the Jewish people.  A home to our mighty nation.

Doron Almog fought for the Jewish state, risked his life in battle and lost friends in combat and then he kept fighting to meet his most sacred challenge, one that aims to better our society, bridge gaps and offer a respectful life to those in need.

I would like to invite you to join us in a special call with Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, where he will address our JCC Movement and share his personal story. (find his bio here)

This call is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, May 3, 12:30 EDT. Dial-in Number:

From the US:  (641) 715-3836

From Canada: (605) 781-0006

From Israel: 0765990060

Participant Access Code: 178657

The Haggadah teaches us “In every generation an individual must envision for himself that he is leaving Egypt.” We may have become a nation in leaving Egypt, a mighty one, but the responsibility of caring for our nation, assuring it remains mighty is an everlasting commitment. One that we should fulfill with pride and humbleness.

L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!

Happy Pesach!

Leah


 

Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha – “When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy”

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

March 10, 2016

Today is the first of the Hebrew month of Adar, the month associated more than any other with joy and happiness.  And in two weeks, our joy increases when we celebrate Purim, which presents our Jewish story in a nutshell:  In the year 482 B.C.E., the Jews of the Persian Empire faced death, decreed by King Achashverosh, for not assimilating.  “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other people in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”(Megillat Esther 3:9). The plot, instigated by Haman, the king’s evil vizier, urged the people to initiate a bloodbath and to loot and kill the Jews on the 15th day of the month of Adar.

What made Haman so angry, to initiate such a decree?  What had the Jews done to deserve this bloodshed? Perhaps Haman held a deep understanding of our Jewish story. He and his counterparts, other enemies of the Jews, have understood throughout history that the survival and triumph of Jews has been born of our persistence, our determination, our unity and our commitment to tradition and heritage.

Seeing the Jews led by Mordechai, holding onto their beliefs and customs as a unified people meant one thing to Haman—they could not be defeated.

This is at the heart of Purim and why this holiday has remained relevant ever since.

Today, 2,498 years later Jews are still a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other people in all the provinces of realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people.

Purim 2016 will be celebrated across the Jewish world with great appreciation for our Jewish sovereign State, for our ongoing ability to be one and united despite being scattered and dispersed. But North American Jews of 2016 and Israelis of 2016 differ on one of the most crucial issues that we face. It is one that is the cause of an ongoing bleeding conflict since the rebirth of the State of Israel. Israelis and American Jews differ in the way they interpret the Israeli relationship, or more accurately, lack of relationship, with the Palestinians. The majority of Jews in North America, especially younger Jews, strongly objects to the settlement movement and consider it to be an obstacle to peace. They urge Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, keep peace at the top of the agenda and strive to solve the conflict. Most Israelis, however, as we see in the recently released survey of Israelis by the Pew Research Center, believe otherwise.

The survey found that 42 percent of Israelis believe the continued building of West Bank settlements contributes to Israel’s security. These findings are fascinating in light of the growing numbers of young American Jewish college students supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Where Israelis see security, they see oppression and occupation.

In addition, and perhaps the strongest indication of the differentiation between Israelis and North American Jews is that roughly half of Israeli Jews (48 percent) say Arabs should be transferred or expelled from Israel. In my opinion this is an alarming data, one we should all be concerned with, but for 48% of my fellow Israelis- this is how they feel about co-existence and the future of a two State solution. This data in the minds of North American Jewry is beyond comprehensiveness – being a very small minority among strong democratic states as the US and Canada contradicts any notion of expelling other people.

Despite these growing gaps, Purim’s message hasn’t faded. Most Israeli Jews feel they share a common destiny with North American Jews and believe that American Jews have a good influence on Israeli affairs. For that matter it’s important to note that the 2013 Pew report of U.S. Jews found that most American Jews say they are either “very” (30 percent) or “somewhat” (39 percent) emotionally attached to Israel, and that caring about Israel is either essential or important to what being Jewish means to them.

So yes, Purim is the story of our lives. We keep our Jewish tradition despite being in exile. No enemy can tear that from us; and in it we have found the strength to do more than survive—we thrive. Through persecution and exile, we have persisted, finding unity even when scattered around the globe.

Many of my North American Jewish friends have shared with me their concern regarding Israelis’ estrangement from the peace process. They feel that Israel has neglected it, putting it on the back burner. To them I say that we haven’t forgotten peace, we will never give up on it and we shall always pursue it. But life is more challenging than that, and seeking peace can at times be beyond reach.

We pray each day for peace, three times a day. We gave up the Sinai and we evacuated Gaza, forcing Jews to leave homes there. But still there is no peace. We bring trucks filled with supplies to Gaza. We offer medical care to our enemies and treat their sick and injured daily in our hospitals. And still there is no peace. We have attempted to build these bridges and to show good faith. But nonetheless, we haven’t been able to build real, long-lasting bridges that have led to peace.

Perhaps living here through wars and terror, like the current wave that resulted this week in the death of 29-year-old Taylor Force, a U.S. Army veteran and a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. Taylor was killed and 12 people were injured, including his wife, in a chain of terror attacks, the sort of event that makes it very hard for most Israelis to stay optimistic. We are beset by these attacks daily, which unfortunately turns us from idealism to pragmatism. But I refuse to lose hope or see such violence rob us of our dream. It is one that we share with all of you, but a dream that gets harder and harder to sustain when it’s being assaulted every day.

Adar, the month of joy begins today. Anne Frank who perished in the Holocaust in 1945 was able to see joy event through the darkness of her hiding place. If she could, so must we.

Anne wrote:  “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

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“We all want to hear children’s laughter and see hope in their eyes”

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

January 15, 2016

On days where conflict, terror, fear and hatred blacken our sky and cloud our lives, we must appreciate every beam of light that illuminates caring, empathy, humanity and hope.

Almost 68 years have passed since the founding of Israel, nearly seven decades of endless, almost near-hopeless attempts to live in peace with four million Palestinians, our closest neighbors. It does not seem these days like things will ever change; they end only in a summary of despair, entrenched attitudes, prejudice and strong opinions. And most of all, with sadness, great sadness.

Since the High Holidays, Israel has been going through a painful wave of terror. One that is mostly sporadic, not planned, carried out by young men and women, in many cases teenagers. This wave of violence terrorize, provokes confrontation, deepens the abyss, raises the walls and widens the barriers between us and them, between peace and war.

This recent terror wave revealed many ugly faces of evil, including ones of our own, of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews joining into this circle of blood, dancing to the rhythm of animosity by the light of hostile flames.

Nothing can justify terror. Not revenge, not despair, not getting even. Israeli Jews that hit this bottom have lost their moral compass. They, too, must be punished with all severity, and be condemned.

But there is a beam of light. One that insists on crossing borders and overlooking realities. It’s a road to humanity paved by kindheartedness.

Road to Recovery is not-for-profit Israeli organization of about 600 volunteers who drive Palestinians undergoing medical treatment in Israeli hospitals to and from the crossings into Israel. Most of those assisted by these Israeli volunteers are children with severe ailments for whom medical treatments and procedures are unavailable in the West Bank or Gaza. For these children and their family guardians, logistics and travel costs to Israeli hospitals are prohibitive, particularly for patients requiring regular and recurring treatment.

In addition to transporting Palestinian patients to hospitals all over Israel, Road to Recovery assist those with limited means in the acquisition of specialized outpatient medical equipment, organize special rehabilitation and retreat days for Palestinian patients and their families in Israeli recreation destinations.

Like Save a Child’s Heart where children from across the Palestinian Authority are treated for heart illness by Israeli Jewish doctors, like all other Israeli hospitals in Israel where sick patience lay side by side with Jewish patience, treated by Jewish and Arab caring doctors and nurses.

Like Alyn’s Rehabilitation Center where children from Gaza and the West Bank are treated by a caring and devoted medical team and volunteers; and like many other institutions in Israel that are blind to race and nationality and consider all who suffer to be equal.

Why is it that suffering children break all barriers, and a mother’s cry is heard by all? It is a fundamental part of our story; God heard the cries of both Sarah and Hagar, the mothers of both our peoples. Sarah wept to be a mother; Hagar cried out when she thought she was powerless to save hers. God heard them both. Why must innocent human beings suffer in order for us to realize that living side by side can be our reality, if only we reach out to one another with compassion.

I’m not naïve. I have lived in Israel from the day I was born in Jerusalem. I love our Jewish homeland, and it has taught me a great lesson in reality. The conflict unfortunately is part of the air I breathe. Driving daily by the Old City walls reminds me that they not only hold secrets of ancient times and the glory of Jerusalem, but also delineate a very real separation between us and our neighbors, between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, between areas that inspire my wonder, and those at which I cannot wonder at all.

But I refuse to get used to this ongoing conflict of almost 68 years. I refuse to get used to this recent wave of terror. Yes, I have learned how to live by its side. I adjust my routine and follow every development, but I have never gotten used to it. I can never be indifferent and will never lose hope to see it end—to breathe different air, Jerusalem’s mountain air, as clear as wine.

Because after all, we all want the same thing—hearing children’s laughter and seeing hope in their eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Leah Garber, Vice President, Director | JCC Israel Center


llluminating the darkness

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

November 13, 2015

Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. A month in which we celebrate Hanukkah, the holiday that commemorates the victory of the Israelites over the Greeks in a series of battles taking place around the year 165 BC.

Hanukah symbolizes our very basic right to celebrate Jewish identity under Jewish sovereignty. This very basic value of our nation, of any nation, was challenged just two days ago when the European Union’s executive approved new guidelines for labeling products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, a move that has already been criticized by Israel as “disguised anti-Semitism.”

According to these new guidelines, Israeli producers must explicitly label farm goods and cosmetics that come from settlements when they are sold in the European Union, emphasizing the term Israeli settlement.

The EU does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Sources in the European Union argue that these new guidelines are measures aimed to inform European consumers about the origin of these products. If the European Union is so eager to educate, are they also informing its citizens about Israel’s medical aid to Syrians; about Israeli hospitals that treat Palestinians on an ongoing basis; or about weeks of ongoing violent terror perpetrated by the Palestinians targeting civilians and Israeli soldiers. Does the EU plan to label goods from Northern Cyprus, which Turkey has occupied since 1974? Or from the parts of Georgia or Ukraine, which has seized in the past few year? Or perhaps label all goods produced by countries like China, India, Sri Lanka and others manufactured by child labor and slavery?

Labeling and boycotting Israeli products manufactured in Jewish settlements won’t really have any serious economic impact on Israeli businesses over the Green Line. It will instead greatly harm the Palestinian economy. At least 10,0000 employed Palestinians are expected to lose their jobs, and will have only few opportunities to find other jobs. For those Palestinians who do succeed in finding employment in Palestinian cities of the West Bank, they will have to settle for jobs without social or medical benefits and at a much smaller salary—a bit cut compared to the benefits and pay they now receive from Israeli employers.

These potentially newly unemployed Palestinians strongly oppose these new sanctions, and rather hope to continue with their normal, stable lives, working side-by-side with Israeli employees. It is a rare demonstration of co-existence that goes beyond the headlines and the European Union’s concern.

In a week when a 12-year-old Palestinian terrorist stabs a security officer on Jerusalem’s light rail; in times when daily stabbings, stonings and tossed Molotov cocktails are daily occurrences; when I, too, have to change my daily commute back home to avoid a certain highway that has been under attack; Europe’s reaction is this? Boycotting Israel? Giving a prize to terror? Encouraging violence? What’s the message, what are the subtitles? Palestinien economic frustrations will grow thanks to these new guidelines. They can easily trigger a “Palestinian Spring,” as economic stress triggered the violent Islamic revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. These recent guidelines do not prophesize peace, nor will they awaken a moribund peace process Israel is eager to renew.

Unfortunately the European Union holds a very one-sided, narrow-minded opinion. But fortunately, this isn’t the Israel known to the Jewish world, known to our Jewish communities.

Last week a group of more than 50 JCC leaders met at JCC Association’s first Innovation Lab: Jerusalem. This new, dynamic platform was designed to inspire Jewish Community Centers by introducing them to the best and brightest of the doers and thinkers of the “start-up nation.” Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular, is known to the world for its geo-political complications, religious complexities and ethnic sensitivities. This is Israel to the world—a country associated with war, terror and injustice.

Innovation Lab: Jerusalem invited participants to experience a very different Israel. This Israel faces those realities with eyes wide open, acknowledges the challenges, yet somehow continue to create, shape, invent and innovate.

Diversity is part of society. It’s part of the Israeli society and it’s part of our communities’ social fabric. Our Lab participants were inspired by unusual trailblazers representing minorities in Israel looking into ways to turn challenges into opportunities, to leverage diversity, and ultimately, to creatively build community. We delved into the worlds of art, sports, special needs, hi tech, social action, film, Jewish renewal and advertisement to be inspired from, learn and take home ideas, creativity and innovate thinking.

On Friday evening during the Lab, we joined the Zion Congregation in Jerusalem for a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat services.

As a native Jerusalemite, I am familiar with the city’s various congregations. The Zion community was the most inspiring Jewish moment I experienced in a long time. Raba Tamar Applebaum believes in no separation whatsoever. Jews of all denominations, ethnic backgrounds and levels of observance are welcome to join the synagogue. Non-Jews are welcomed as well. Men and women, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, secular, traditional and Orthodox Jews, tourists and Israelis, all feel at home, welcomed by Raba Tamar, an outstanding personality. Raba Tamar is a mother to all, a spiritual leader, a sister and a friend. She manages to lead a congregation based on mutual acceptance and respect. A community celebrating Jewish life in all its diversity, chanting all melodies, embracing the wide range of Jewish beauty.

One of the most famous Hanukkah songs is by poet Sarah Levi Tanai and reads as follows:

“We came to drive away the darkness
in our hands is light and fire.
Everyone’s a small light,
and all of us are a firm light.

Fight darkness, further blackness!
Fight because of the light!”

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights welcomes all lights. All of our different flames will join together, igniting our torch, illuminating and leading our way forward to a world of Jewish innovation, even in days of hardship, pain and darkness.

We should welcome all lights to proudly dance in our one collective menorah, together.

Shabbat shalom and an early happy Hanukkah!


 

My Heart is in the East

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

October 13, 2015

I am in New York, but my heart is in Israel. Work has called me to America, but the news turns me around so that I face east, worrying about my beloved homeland.

When I awoke this morning, the news was grim. It was hard to absorb that since Rosh Hashanah eight Israelis had been killed. The news made me more home sick than ever. Eight Israelis, walking home, traveling on buses, going about their daily lives, murdered.

This wave of violence began right around the start of the High Holidays, escalating daily. Since Sukkot, a holiday known as z’man simchatenu, or the time of our celebrating, things have gotten much worse. This holiday of joy became a time of trouble, as the dark clouds gathered and troubling winds swept away the festivities and uplifting atmosphere of the High Holidays

During the Sukkot, Eitam and Na’ama Henkin with their four children were on their way to see friends when a gunman shot and killed them both in front of their very young children.

Aharon Benita, a father of a small baby, was on his way home with his wife and child after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City during the holiday. When Nechemia Lavi, a father of seven, who lives in the Old City, heard screaming, he rushed to the Benitas’ rescue, only to be shot at as well. Aharon and Nechemia left eight orphans, who joined by the Henkin’s four orphans, leaving us to wonder why an innocent family trip on the holiday of joy, ends with dead parents.

Since waking today, I hear that three Israelis were murdered and dozens were wounded in five terror attacks in Jerusalem, Ra’anana and Kiryat Ata. Among them, Rabbi Yeshayahu Krishevsky, 60, known for his community charity, and Haviv Haim, 78, who was doing nothing more than riding the bus with his wife.

In the past few weeks Israel has experienced an onslaught of daily terror attacks, mainly in the greater Jerusalem area. It’s important to note that this current wave isn’t led by the Palestinian leadership, and isn’t indicating a planned organized uprising. Most terrorists are Palestinian teenagers with an average age of 13, stoning, stabbing and throwing homemade Molotov cocktails in sporadic terror attacks at passing by Israeli citizens. One Palestinian analyst has accurately described this reality: A personal intifada (uprising).

Muslims claim that Israel seeks to upend longstanding commitments about Jewish worship at the Temple Mount. The Israeli government continues to uphold a fragile status quo in Jerusalem, while expanding the numbers of police forces. And Israelis go about their business, ever-mindful of their surroundings, but maintaining a sense of normalcy—malls, and movies, restaurants and parks filled as usual.

And I’m in the United States, visiting some JCCs and participating in JCC Association’s board and staff meetings in New York. My perspective is colored by the distance, as I long to be with loved ones back home. As I work on, this month’s View from Jerusalem, though, I get to share with you a different perspective. Standing on this side of the ocean allows me to see Israel from a different angle, one that the hour-by-hour coverage of events in Israel is not concerned with. It is a glimpse into a world of mostly one-sided media reports, and seeing the need to look further for information and facts beyond the unbalanced, unobjective media feed scrolling on our computer screens.

The reality is that nothing Israel did caused this escalation of violence. Israel is committed to ending this too-long conflict, respecting the freeze in building outside the green line that delineates the West Bank, captured in 1967, from the rest of the land so proudly declared a state in 1948.

These eight innocent civilians woke up expecting a normal day, and instead became victims of terror, never realizing that the day would become the last one of their lives. Palestinians who set out to do harm, understood the score. They made a deadly decision to snuff out precious lives. Palestinian deaths are reported just the same as those of Israelis—perpetrator and victim as equals. This isn’t a balanced fight and numbers can’t and mustn’t be shared in one equal breath.

We read Genesis last Shabbat, a text describing the creation of a perfect world that is based on harmony. It is a world filled with colors, like an artist’s palate, yet where variation and differences make for a unified whole. It is a world that invites us to share and celebrate its beauty, this perfect world of Eden. But this coming Shabbat we will read parsha Noah, where man used his power to corrupt this harmony and do evil— evil that could only be ended by the mighty forces of floods and rain.

In the generations since Noah, humans have experienced many forms of corruption and evil. We have also learned to build bridges over troubled water and make attempts to repair the world without floods washing it away, without the need to restart it from scratch.

Exactly one week ago we started praying for rain—rain that will water our fields and grow blessings. Today, I pray that this rain will wash away the current evil that is hurting our country and will remind us of creations’ potential to live in harmony and peace.

And when today comes to an end, I can only hope that the rainbow that appears at the end of parsha Noah—the promise of harmony—will remind us that varied colors can work together like on the artists’ palate, creating hope for a better future.

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org

 

 

A Tale Of Two Cities

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

August 17, 2015

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are not Charles Dickens’ London and Paris but in a similar way, these two cities capture in their characteristics Israel’s variety, diversity, heterogeneousness and color. And they are less than 40 miles apart.

In Jerusalem we dig to discover our roots and past; in Tel Aviv we dig to welcome the future. Tel Aviv, Israel’s first Hebrew city — and Israel’s cultural capital — is finally connecting its dots and after 50 years of planning, embarking on one of the state’s biggest construction projects — digging and building a Metropolitan Area Mass-Transit System. Target date for completing the first line is in 2021, which means years of even heavier traffic jams, dust and bustling noise.

In Jerusalem, where building and digging has been so common for centuries, the light rail operating since 2011 has become the capital’s most popular means of transportation, connecting East Jerusalem with West Jerusalem.

But Jerusalem’s transportation advantages can’t compensate for its prejudice. Jerusalem should look up to Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East with its well-established LGBT community that hosts an annual gay pride parade attracting large crowds from all over the world, for its tolerance, openness and acceptance. Contrast this to what happened just a few weeks ago in Jerusalem, where, for the second time, violence erupted during its annual gay pride parade. Sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox man who perpetrated a similar stabbing at the 2005 march. He had only recently been released from prison after serving 10 years for that earlier crime.

Shira was killed for proudly marching in support for her friends and the LGBT community’s right to celebrate life as they choose. Shira was killed by a madman full of baseless hatred for her right to support free love.
Shira’s family called for “a little less hate and a lot more love,” followed by an announcement that it had decided to donate her organs in order to save the lives of others, whoever they may be.

Tel Aviv is the economic, cultural, and party capital of Israel. It is a place you can hear a world-class orchestra perform Mahler, or dance all night to beats mixed by internationally famous DJs, and in between, relax on the beach, whereas Jerusalem is Israel’s spiritual center, holy to all three major religions. It now has a syndrome named after it: Jerusalem Syndrome, attacking people with religious-inflected psychosis when they can’t handle its spirituality and holiness.

Founded more than 100 years ago, literarily from sand dunes, and known as the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv always has been an attraction to massive waves of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and elsewhere, as well as to a large number of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers from places such as Eritrea, Sudan, China and the Philippines. This has created ethnic clusters in the city, adding to Tel Aviv’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, as these communities jostle for the privilege of calling Tel Aviv home.  Compare it to Jerusalem, where historical and archeological evidence can track its establishment to 3800 B.C.E. was first conquered by King David and proclaimed as his capital in 1000 B.C.

Since the 1980s, young, urbane and educated Israelis from all over the country have flooded Tel Aviv, which gives the city its sophisticated air.  Massive renovation and development has added skyscrapers to all those Bauhaus gems, so the city now combines the look of a relaxed Mediterranean seaside town with an edgy urban vibe. Many of those young, sophisticated, and educated Israelis arrived in Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, where its complex, religious, ancient and political air was too stifling for their contemporary selves.

This August was one of the hottest on record in Israel, with temperatures hitting 113 degrees. Tel Aviv’s 90 percent humidity was impossible to escape, day or night. Yet in Jerusalem, after dragging through a miserable hot day, a cooler evening greeted by Jerusalem’s mountain winds awaited.

Tel Aviv is the young funky, light and fun loving sister. Jerusalem is the responsible adult with its official state offices, Parliament, historic sites and political complexities.

Jerusalem is famous and proud for its signature dish —meurav Yerushalmi, orJerusalem mix. Different kinds of meat piled into pita bread with plenty of onions, tahini and salads. Nothing pretentious, very simple, very local and extremely delicious. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is all about foodie culture, with its growing fusion cuisine where you can find more than 100 places to eat sushi, and is known for the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy, according to the Italian tourism ministry.

I was born and raised in Jerusalem, breathed its air and inhaled its oxygen. Our JCC Israel Center is located only five minutes from Jerusalem’s Old City and driving by all the historical sites daily still excites me. I love Jerusalem with everything it has to offer but I live in Modiin, exactly halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  I guess I’m more of an Israel mix vs. the traditional Jerusalem mix I ate so often as a child.

More than 100 years after its establishment, Tel Aviv has grown into its founders’ vision and become the vibrant, cosmopolitan, sophisticated city they once imagined. Tel Aviv, the city of renewal, should aim for growth and evolution, prosperity and positive subversion — blazing a path forward.

More than 3000 years after King David proclaimed Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish world, Jerusalem, which has more than 70 different names, each reflecting the city’s many dimensions, continues to be a source of yearning, and of pride. It is the bedrock of our hope and an enduring symbol of Jewish sovereignty.

But with all its claims on history and our hearts, Jerusalem, the City of Shalom, needs to respect 16-year-old Shira Banki’s memory, strive for tolerance, reach out to peace, and we must do so first and foremost among ourselves.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

leah@jcca.org

 


 

The Language of Art

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

July 15, 2015

We are in the midst of the period between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av (July 5 –26 of this year) when the Jewish world mourns the destruction of the first and second Temples, both symbols of Jewish sovereignty that was lost for 2,000 years.

Both Temples were built on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah, which also symbolizes spirituality and the connecting point between earthly Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem. Jewish sovereignty was restored only in 1948 when David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the rebirth of the Jewish state. Ever since, Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish world, rejuvenated its spiritual magnitude through Jerusalem’s creative world of art.

In its early years and through all cultural and social changes, Israel’s art scene is most associated with Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Established in 1906 by sculptor Boris Schatz, it exhibits its graduates final art works these days.

Bezalel —the first artist mentioned in the Bible — is the namesake of Israel’s leading art school. The Torah says that God filled him with “wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all manner of workmanship – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” (Exodus 31, 1-5).

Artists are gifted. They are blessed with the ability to share their own interpretation to the world’s wonders as well as its pain. They are granted with the sensitivity to translate thoughts into colors, shapes, notes and words, or, in the Bible’s words—God’s spirit and wisdom. Israel is a unique geo-political junction, the meeting point of Western and Eastern culture, between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And it was only appropriate that the new state-of-the-art campus planned to be built by 2017, be located in the Russian Compound between the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Museum of Underground Prisoners, a multi-cultural meeting place, so typical to Jerusalem. This spectacular new campus is made possible thanks to the generosity of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio, which also funds JCC Association’s Center for Excellence in Leadership and Management and its Center for Jewish Education. This major gift follows the foundation’s long-standing support of Israel’s art, which includes housing a collection of more than 100 pieces, works of Bezalel students at the foundation offices in Jerusalem. Or as Morton L. Mandel, foundation chairman and CEO and JCC Association honorary chair says:” The gift represents our desire to support Bezalel, the city of Jerusalem and the advancement of art in Israel”.

Israel’s artists, along with other grassroots innovators, aspire to better improve life, inspire evolution change and enrich our existence with meaning and diversity. Those who make up Jerusalem’s local, creative scene will gather at the upcoming JCC Innovation Lab in November.

The special language of art is above and beyond physical borders, rules, geographical barriers, political obstacles, social impediments and any sort of prejudice. That’s its power, the strength to rise over troubled waters, bridge gaps and connect where there is disconnect. The beauty of artistic language should and can be adopted throughout other aspects of life. And where dispute arise, we can apply artistic skills of transforming challenges into opportunities and disagreements can become pluralistic diversity.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case 2,000 years ago. The sages say that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. for sinat chinam, baseless hatred. The people of Israel were divided into too many sects, which led to endless disputes and eventually to animosity. We were fighting one another, separated from one another and therefore weak and easily defeated.

But we grew, learned from our forefathers’ errors and today, 2,000 years later can proudly share Israel’s diversity and pluralism as a force of strength rather than weakness. The Talmud taches us that “The rivalry of scribes increases wisdom,” and that “Dispute for the sake of Heaven will last.” As learned through the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5, these are not only positive methods of learning, but also were encouraged by our sages as they increase mutual studying, by sharing the richness of thoughts and opinions. From time to time we need to remind ourselves to dispute only for the sake of heaven—without prejudice, judgment and discrimination.

This side of Israel is one of many. And one that close to 250 participants will experience this summer as part of their JCC Maccabi Israel Teen Travel program. These teens come from the Emma Kaufmann Camp of the Greater Pittsburgh JCC; the Michael Ann Russell JCC in Miami, the Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC of Milwaukee; Camp Wise of the Mandel JCC of Cleveland; Camp Chi of JCC Chicago; Pinemere Camp in Pennsylvania, Camp Livingstone in Cincinnati Ohio, the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee and the ARTEL Teen Fellowship spearheaded by the JCH of Bensonhurst. Thanks to their visit to Israel, these teens will grow up more attached to Israel and more aware of Israel’s great relevancy and contribution to their lives as North American Jewish teens. Learning to communicate and share opinions through the open-minded language of art will certainly be one of the gifts this summer in Israel will leave them with.

The second Temple was destroyed for baseless hatred; redemption will come upon us when we demonstrate acceptance, tolerance and baseless love, or better still, endless love.

Leah Garber

Vice President and Director, JCC Israel Center


 

Pluralism, Acceptance, Love and Hope

Leah Garber, Vice President and Director, JCC Israel Center

June 15, 2015

“As a Jew I am aware of how important the existence of Israel is for the survival of us all. And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world.” —Steven Spielberg

Last Friday was a day filled with sorrow, festivity and nationalism, as three very different, yet oddly connected events took place. Somehow, in their very disparity, Israel’s unique and fascinating puzzle came together.

June 12, 2014 was the last day on earth for Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, three innocent high school boys. On that Thursday night, exactly one year ago, these three boys were kidnapped and brutally murdered on their way home from school. Twelve months ago their dreams, plans and desires were cut remorselessly by terrorists. In that instant, three innocent, private lives ended; and three new symbols were born: Eyal, Naftali and Gilad became all of ours; our boys, our sons and brothers. They were just three normal boys, preparing for school finals, excited about the summer to come, enjoying life as any other teenager would.

After 18 days of prayers, hope, tireless efforts and above all, unity, Gila-Ad, Naftali and Eyal were discovered murdered. Three families were forever changed. And three private citizens became public symbols, more bricks laid in the painful layers of our shared history.

Then, last Friday, a very different kind of injustice — one built from the very same bricks — was repaired. It all began when two weeks ago, while visiting Cairo, Egypt, worldwide mobile phone network Orange’s CEO Stephane Richard announced that he would be happy if his company suspended its operations in Israel. Following his statement Orange announced ending its contract with the Israeli company operating under the brand. As a result of protests across the board, from Orange employees, Israelis in general and Israel’s government, Orange announced that this is a business move rather than a political one — although announcing business decisions relating to Israel in Cairo didn’t really convince the public in Israel nor its officials. Once he realized this announcement had anti-Israel written all over it, Richard expressed his regret, said his message was misunderstood, and this past Friday arrived in Israel to personally apologize in front of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the people of Israel.

This recent anti-Israel statement follows a series of worldwide anti-Israel sanctions and boycotts by universities, commercial companies, sports organizations and others. This global trend to demonize and delegitimize Israel is part of a wider phenomenon known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS is a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with the stated goals of the movement: the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This vicious bias campaign began in 2005 led by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations. The BDS campaign called for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”

One of the movement’s activities is the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). A series of university lectures and rallies, Apartheid Week aims to “educate” the public about Israel as an apartheid system and to build BDS campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement. Since IAW began in Toronto in 2005, it has since spread to at least 55 cities around the world including those in Canada and the United States.

A city can choose to dedicate a full week to promote boycotts, hatred, racism and animosity; or it can choose to celebrate free will, democracy and acceptance, as did Tel Aviv this past Friday. Dressed up in lovely rainbow colors, Tel Aviv’s residents left behind the weight of Israel’s complexities, tensions and politics with the rest of the world to celebrate Gay Pride. They dressed up our first Hebrew City and welcomed hundreds of thousands of participants, among them 30,000 tourists from across the world, to dance and sing at what has become known as one of the outstanding inclusionary events of the LGBT community. Jews, Arabs, Christians and others marched together, celebrating life and emphasizing diversity AND unity in the only parade like it taking place the Middle East.

But Friday’s festivities, along with Friday’s public apology, and Friday’s commemoration, has very little impact on the way the world sees Israel. What is it about Israel that draws so much hatred, negativism and hypocrisy? Each of the 55 cities around the globe engaged in BDS has its own minorities, its own internal social injustices, its own challenges. But they choose to focus on Israel. Is their concern really and mainly about protecting the rights of the Palestinians? Or is it classic, old anti-Semitism, just another layer in that painful brick wall of history?

The state of Israel, supported by world Jewry, has made endless attempts since the day it was established, 67 years ago to reach out to its neighbors and withdraw from land that Arab countries lay claim to. We gave up water and other natural resources in order to gain peace. We evacuated Jewish families from homes more than once in order to reach an agreement, and we welcome Palestinian citizens to use our advanced medical system when needed, leaving all disputes aside, even during the war last summer.

I once believed that we should focus on Israel beyond the conflict and highlight Israel’s many accomplishments beyond the military, such as high-tech achievement, the arts, culinary creativity, social activism etc. Today, 55 cities promoting Israeli Apartheid Week later, I outgrew my naiveté and realized that everything in Israel is political, as it is across the world, and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. On the contrary, we should focus on all that is beautiful in Israel, such as our inclusive Gay Pride celebration, Israel’s amazing art scene, Israel’s outstanding high-tech and social activism in light of our very complex reality and politics. These are facets of this country demonstrating that while we are in constant dialog with the conflict, that Jews and Arabs celebrate together, work together, create together, and craft our cultural future together. This is an outstanding demonstration of a real democracy that is strong, confident and stable enough to allow controversial performances and exhibitions.

It’s all part of our reality; that is until it gets twisted and distorted by those seeking to revive anti-Semitism under new forms and excuses, questioning our right to exist and demonizing the Israeli people.

While the streets of Tel Aviv were still filled with party ornaments and colorful rainbow flags, three mothers of three precious boys, our boys, lit Shabbat candles. They prayed for peace and for the people of Israel to stand together on days of sorrow and on days of happiness. Another remarkable week in Israel came to an end. Shabbat with its glory and majesty covered the land of the Jews, who despite external threats have chosen pluralism, acceptance, love and hope.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

“As a Jew I am aware of how important the existence of Israel is for the survival of us all. And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world.” —Steven Spielberg

Last Friday was a day filled with sorrow, festivity and nationalism, as three very different, yet oddly connected events took place. Somehow, in their very disparity, Israel’s unique and fascinating puzzle came together.

June 12, 2014 was the last day on earth for Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, three innocent high school boys. On that Thursday night, exactly one year ago, these three boys were kidnapped and brutally murdered on their way home from school. Twelve months ago their dreams, plans and desires were cut remorselessly by terrorists. In that instant, three innocent, private lives ended; and three new symbols were born: Eyal, Naftali and Gilad became all of ours; our boys, our sons and brothers. They were just three normal boys, preparing for school finals, excited about the summer to come, enjoying life as any other teenager would.

After 18 days of prayers, hope, tireless efforts and above all, unity, Gila-Ad, Naftali and Eyal were discovered murdered. Three families were forever changed. And three private citizens became public symbols, more bricks laid in the painful layers of our shared history.

Then, last Friday, a very different kind of injustice — one built from the very same bricks — was repaired. It all began when two weeks ago, while visiting Cairo, Egypt, worldwide mobile phone network Orange’s CEO Stephane Richard announced that he would be happy if his company suspended its operations in Israel. Following his statement Orange announced ending its contract with the Israeli company operating under the brand. As a result of protests across the board, from Orange employees, Israelis in general and Israel’s government, Orange announced that this is a business move rather than a political one — although announcing business decisions relating to Israel in Cairo didn’t really convince the public in Israel nor its officials. Once he realized this announcement had anti-Israel written all over it, Richard expressed his regret, said his message was misunderstood, and this past Friday arrived in Israel to personally apologize in front of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the people of Israel.

This recent anti-Israel statement follows a series of worldwide anti-Israel sanctions and boycotts by universities, commercial companies, sports organizations and others. This global trend to demonize and delegitimize Israel is part of a wider phenomenon known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS is a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with the stated goals of the movement: the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This vicious bias campaign began in 2005 led by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations. The BDS campaign called for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”

One of the movement’s activities is the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). A series of university lectures and rallies, Apartheid Week aims to “educate” the public about Israel as an apartheid system and to build BDS campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement. Since IAW began in Toronto in 2005, it has since spread to at least 55 cities around the world including those in Canada and the United States.

A city can choose to dedicate a full week to promote boycotts, hatred, racism and animosity; or it can choose to celebrate free will, democracy and acceptance, as did Tel Aviv this past Friday. Dressed up in lovely rainbow colors, Tel Aviv’s residents left behind the weight of Israel’s complexities, tensions and politics with the rest of the world to celebrate Gay Pride. They dressed up our first Hebrew City and welcomed hundreds of thousands of participants, among them 30,000 tourists from across the world, to dance and sing at what has become known as one of the outstanding inclusionary events of the LGBT community. Jews, Arabs, Christians and others marched together, celebrating life and emphasizing diversity AND unity in the only parade like it taking place the Middle East.

But Friday’s festivities, along with Friday’s public apology, and Friday’s commemoration, has very little impact on the way the world sees Israel. What is it about Israel that draws so much hatred, negativism and hypocrisy? Each of the 55 cities around the globe engaged in BDS has its own minorities, its own internal social injustices, its own challenges. But they choose to focus on Israel. Is their concern really and mainly about protecting the rights of the Palestinians? Or is it classic, old anti-Semitism, just another layer in that painful brick wall of history?

The state of Israel, supported by world Jewry, has made endless attempts since the day it was established, 67 years ago to reach out to its neighbors and withdraw from land that Arab countries lay claim to. We gave up water and other natural resources in order to gain peace. We evacuated Jewish families from homes more than once in order to reach an agreement, and we welcome Palestinian citizens to use our advanced medical system when needed, leaving all disputes aside, even during the war last summer.

I once believed that we should focus on Israel beyond the conflict and highlight Israel’s many accomplishments beyond the military, such as high-tech achievement, the arts, culinary creativity, social activism etc. Today, 55 cities promoting Israeli Apartheid Week later, I outgrew my naiveté and realized that everything in Israel is political, as it is across the world, and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. On the contrary, we should focus on all that is beautiful in Israel, such as our inclusive Gay Pride celebration, Israel’s amazing art scene, Israel’s outstanding high-tech and social activism in light of our very complex reality and politics. These are facets of this country demonstrating that while we are in constant dialog with the conflict, that Jews and Arabs celebrate together, work together, create together, and craft our cultural future together. This is an outstanding demonstration of a real democracy that is strong, confident and stable enough to allow controversial performances and exhibitions.

It’s all part of our reality; that is until it gets twisted and distorted by those seeking to revive anti-Semitism under new forms and excuses, questioning our right to exist and demonizing the Israeli people.

While the streets of Tel Aviv were still filled with party ornaments and colorful rainbow flags, three mothers of three precious boys, our boys, lit Shabbat candles. They prayed for peace and for the people of Israel to stand together on days of sorrow and on days of happiness. Another remarkable week in Israel came to an end. Shabbat with its glory and majesty covered the land of the Jews, who despite external threats have chosen pluralism, acceptance, love and hope.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


 

The Beauty of Jerusalem

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

The Talmud teaches, “Ten measures of beauty descended on the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world.” Years later, Mark Twain said, “There is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem.”

Today, the 26th of Iyar marks the 48th anniversary of the Six-Day War when the third day of this very short war ended 19 years of separation between predominantly Arab and Jewish areas of Jerusalem and led to the unification of the two sections of the city.

Jerusalem was divided from the War of Independence in 1948 until 1967. The western part of the city was in Israeli hands, and the eastern part – excluding an Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus – was under the control of the Jordanian kingdom. After the eastern part of the city was liberated, the walls dividing the city were torn down. Three weeks later the Knesset enacted legislation unifying the city and extending Israeli sovereignty over the eastern part.

That third victorious day of heroic fighting, the 28th of Iyar now marks Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day and is the most recent addition to the Hebrew calendar, (to be celebrated this coming Sunday, May 17.)

Jerusalem has been considered the capital city of the Jewish people since the time of King David, who conquered and established it as the seat of his monarchy in approximately 1000 B.C.E. In modern times, 1980 to be precise, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law establishing “Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, complete and united, is the capital of Israel and the seat of its main governing bodies” and only in 1998 the Knesset passed the “Jerusalem Day “law,” declaring this day as an official holiday.  This 1980 law is often cited by the international community for its refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Following its passage, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 478 on August 20, 1980, which declared that it is“a violation of international law” is “null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.”Member states were called upon to withdraw their diplomatic representation from Jerusalem and relocate them in Tel Aviv. Currently, there are no embassies located within the city limits of Jerusalem.

I was born in Jerusalem and was a baby hiding with my family in our neighbors’ apartment during the Six-Day war (we lived on the third floor which was more vulnerable to air attacks than their ground-floor apartment). I grew up not too far from the Old City, able to walk to the Kotel, or shop at the Arab market on a daily basis.

I consider myself extremely lucky when driving daily to our JCC Israel Center offices alongside the ancient sites of Jerusalem, thinking to myself “if only walls could speak, what secrets will they share?” These walls have seen miseries and joy, victories and capitulation, holiness and despoilment, greatness and recession.

So what is it about Jerusalem that makes Jews across the world pray facing it three times a day, every day; that more than 1,200 songs in many different languages have been written in its honor; that during its history, the city has been captured repeatedly by different conquerors and tribes?

The city of Jerusalem has more than 100 different names, but the one name most frequently used is YERUSHALAYIM, which means peace – SHALOM—or whole – SHALEM. The essence of the city derives from its name: a symbol of peace, acceptance, and tolerance. It is not incidental that Jerusalem is the only city in the world that is holy to all three major monotheistic religions, and therefore respected by all. If these holy sites can tolerate standing peacefully side by side for centuries, so should human beings.

Today, 48 years after the unification of the city, the effort to preserve shalom within Yerushalayim is challenging and ongoing. It is often frustrating, as well as a cause for anger, violence and pain.

Jerusalem is Israel’s most crowded city, with a population of close to 900,000. Of that, 65 percent are Jews, and the rest are Arabs, with a small number of others. While fertility rates are identical for Arabs and Jews (four children per family), Jews appear to be more likely to leave the city. The reasons range from the high cost of living; the fact that the city is relatively more religious than other cities (haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews live in Jerusalem at a rate 3.6 times higher than their percentage in Israel as a whole); and that Jerusalem offers a weaker job market.

In Jerusalem today, Jewish and Arab citizens live in highly segregated environments, and there are few opportunities for meaningful and deep interaction between them, especially among school children. The majority of families in Israel —Jewish and Arab — send their children to segregated schools with some very unique exceptions such as the Bilingual School in Jerusalem.

Thirty percent of the Hebrew University student population is Arab, and the proportion rises every year. In the Givat Ram campus, almost half the students in some courses are Arab. These students are given full access to all facilities and have an active Arab Student Union. Arabic and Islamic studies are among the academic areas in which Hebrew University excels.

Blue and white flags wave over the streets of the city, welcoming hundreds of thousands of Israeli school children honoring our capital, celebrating its holiday. While tension exists between the different ethnical groups of Jerusalem residents, and while some find it hard to celebrate while in many ways the city is still so divided, yet for at least one day, our capital deserves festivity, keeping in mind we must strive to bridge the divides.

My wish for Jerusalem in honor of this holiday is that the same ancient walls will witness new stories—ones of this holy city embracing all its residents and visitors with acceptance and tolerance; overcoming disputes and hate and spreading its “Nine Measures of Beauty” upon all those who sing “Jerusalem of Gold” with great pride and love.

 

Shabbat shalom

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center


 

 Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

Today, Israel and the Jewish world observes Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s national Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, and ceremonies nationwide honor the 23,320 servicemen and victims of terror who had fallen since 1860.

This year that has elapsed since last Yom Hazikaron has been a very difficult one, beginning with the cruel kidnapping and murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad. These sons of Israel quickly became all of our sons. Their tragedy was followed by another vicious kidnapping and murder, that of 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir of Shuafat, an eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhood. He was killed by Jews for being Arab. These two devastating events were followed by 50 days of fighting in Operation Protective Edge and the tragic loss of 67 soldiers and five civilians, including 4-year-old Daniel Tregerman.

Last week, on Yom Hashoah my daughter returned home from school with a candle in memory for Yakov Bromberg, a 70-year-old Romanian Jew who perished in the Holocaust. We never heard of Yakov before, but when lighting a candle in his memory, we read that his will was to be remembered, and we did. Six thousand candles in memory of six million Jews were lit by Israeli children, because we are obligated and privileged to remember and cherish all who perished in the Shoah. Today, on Yom Hazikaron an Israeli flag and a flower have been placed on the graves of every fallen soldier, because they, too, are in our memories, whether we personally know them or not. At 11 a.m. we stood in silence for two minutes, acknowledging their sacrifice, praying for no more conflict and embracing all bereaved families for the price they pay, daily, for our Jewish homeland.

To me, Yom Hazikaron captures the essence of being Israeli. Year after year, I join my husband to visit a bereaved family who I really don’t know, and over the years I’ve become acquainted with them through these visits. Their son Roni Levi, who served with my husband, fell in the first Lebanon War in 1982. Roni was 19-year-old when he was killed and since that moment, his entire family was changed forever. Roni’s mother lost her will to live, and dragged herself through life, day after day, for 32 years, until surrendering to cancer shortly after last Yom Hazikaron, when I saw her last.

In visiting this family I don’t really know that well, meeting other Israelis all there for the same purpose and also known to me only for this reason, through these visits, creates such a powerful feeling of unity, of being part of the whole, of a collective mourning.  Nowhere is this unity more evident than on memorial walls, where the names of native-born Israelis, new immigrants, Jews, Bedouins, Druze, secular, Orthodox and non-Israeli soldiers, are all on the same wall, with no separation by religion, nationality, or belief, united as part of the IDF (Israel Defense Force) and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the Jewish state.

And then, as the sun sets taking with it our tears and sorrow, the most unreasonable yet powerful transition happens: Israel sheds her grief, replacing it with the joy of Yom Ha’atzmaut, celebrating our independence, strength and our very existence.

Certainly, after such a painful year, our hope for peace seems a very distant one. And yet Jews across the world pray for peace three times a day, every day, never losing hope.

Together we built a powerful magnificent Jewish state, and together we stand united remembering our heroes — sons and daughters who died in the long battle protecting our homeland.

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

May he who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen.

Leah Garber

Vice President, JCC Israel Center


The Ways We Remember

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel

“We are still here. And no matter what, we shall continue to be here to tell people so they can learn from our history.” Elie Wiesel

At exactly 10 a.m. today the Jewish state paused for two minutes as a siren wailed across the country to mark Yom Hashoah-Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  2015 marks the 70th anniversary of liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and thus all Holocaust ceremonies are dedicated to liberty, life and the legacy of Shoah survivors.

Some more than one million people, mostly Jews, were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945. Many of the survivors still alive today were children in 1945, one of whom is author Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for acting out against violence, repression, and racism.

Today Israel and the Jewish world mourn six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accomplices, and for the Jewish resistance during that period. Approximately 190,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today. Their average age is 85, and sadly about 1,000 die each month.

Growing up in Israel provided daily opportunities to deal with the Holocaust, or in my case, be obsessed with it. Although members of my extended family perished in theShoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, I’m not a direct descendant of survivors. Both my parents as well as my grandparents grew up in Israel, and yet, the Holocaust was always part of my upbringing. We never vacationed in Germany, nor did we purchase German products. As a child I read and often wrote about the Holocaust and found ways to connect it with my daily life. That sense of blending the old with the new, the future with the past and hope with grief permeates Israel; it’s part of the air we breathe, and it informs how we view things as a people. With a few kibbutzim named in memory of Holocaust heroes and survivors, with so many street names commemorating victims and perished communities, with memorial sites throughout the country, and with hundreds of thousands survivors, their tattooed arms marking them, still walking among us, physically and emotionally scarred for life, it is impossible to escape the Holocaust, nor did I want to.

“Never shall I forget that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, … Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” Elie Wiesel

Will generations to come be surrounded by a similar atmosphere when fewer and fewer survivors live among us, reminding us daily of the horrors they have been through?

Yom Hashoah in Israel is by law a national memorial day and a formal holiday. It was inaugurated in 1953, anchored by a law signed by the Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. This date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and reflects the attitude in Israel of the 1950s – highlighting Jewish heroism as the answer to Jewish passivity. Mordechai Anielewicz the charismatic 24-year-old leader of the Jewish Combat Organization that led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is the kind of Jewish figure a young Israel of the ‘50s chose to identify with, using him as a symbol with which to commemorate the Holocaust. (The Southern Yad Mordechai kibbutz named after Mordechai Anielewicz was formed in 1943). Anielewicz, by all means, was a true leader, a proud Jew and one of our finest Jewish heroes. But his battle and tragedy reflects only one chapter of WWII, a chapter so willingly seized upon by our newborn state looking to illuminate Jewish pride, ignoring all other chapters of the Holocaust — the misery, hapless humiliation and suffering of the six million who perished, and the ones who survived, deeply damaged by the physical and mental privations of the Shoah.

Sharing hope and a smile when smiles are rare are acts of emotional strength. Sharing a single slice of bread is an act of heroism and risking one’s shaky health in an attempt to share a blanket is an act of bravery. Fasting on Yom Kippur and keeping Pesach in order to preserve Jewish identity — a human identity — when such are denied and one becomes nothing more than a number, are acts of mightiness, of Jewish pride.

These are the stories that along with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, heroic partisans’ escapes and other feats of overt bravey that make up the many millions of human moments of Holocuast heroism. They meet side by side in the book of the Shoah and make it a sacred one.

It wasn’t until the Eichmann trial in 1961, when survivors’ testimonies became public, as evidence came out in court and the raw horrors and tales of utter inhumanity were shared. It was then that Holocaust survivors stood courageously on the stand crying out loud: “We didn’t march like sheep to the slaughter; we kept our humanity, one that the Nazis forgot they ever had.” It was then, followed by the 1972 Munich massacre during the Olympic games, when 11 Israeli athletes — symbols of Jewish power — were brutally murdered. Only then did Israelis finally understand what strength really means, and why Holocaust survivors should be treated differently. At that time, public discourse in Israel about the Holocaust changed course, accepting other narratives and acknowledging multi facets of heroism. Israeli society, previously driven by the image of the new Zionist sabra, began viewing survivors with a growing respect for their suffering, and with greater understanding as to what they had been through. There was a new appreciation of what it took for them to survive. Years later this shift in attitude led to changing the concept of the Yad Vashem museum and ultimately a complete renovation.

The 24 hours of Yom Hashoah began at 8 p.m. last night with the official ceremony at Yad Vashem, where six survivors, accompanied by their grandchildren lit six torches in memory of six million men, women and children who perished during WWII in Hitler’s Final Solution. It continues throughout the day today, where by law all entertainment places will remain closed. The day is marked across the country with ceremonies at all schools and public organizations, dedicated broadcasting on radio and TV and the annual reading of names at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, where Israeli delegates read names of their family members killed by the Nazis. It is a day where our collective mourning becomes so personal, yet so public.

Viktor E. Frankl, another well know Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

May the six million — our brothers and sisters, our parents, grandparents and children — memories be a blessing and may we know how to cherish them forever. Yehi Zichram Baruch.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

 


Israel’s Elections for the 20th Knesset

By Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - leah@jcca.org

Yesterday, almost 72% of nearly six million eligible Israeli voters demonstrated their most basic democratic privilege to influence Israel’s future by voting for the twentieth Knesset (Israeli parliament).

A very short and emotional pre-election period of only 90 days ended last night with surprising results that contradicted all pre-election polls. The Likud, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party, has dramatically grown to 30 seats, while the Zionist Union, of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, which boasted a lead of almost four mandates in the polls, succeeded in winning only 24.  Meretz, Israel’s most liberal  party will hold on to four of its current seven seats, and Yesh Atid, Israel’s center party, and the 2013 elections kingpin, lost almost half of its seats. Another interesting development is the Joint List of the Arab parties, which for its first time in Israel’s history is the third largest party with 14 seats. A very positive result of these elections is the unprecedented large number of women slated to serve as Knesset members in the next Parliament.

Despite, or in spite of, a very vocal cry in the last few months to see Netanyahu leave the Prime Minister’s home in Jerusalem, yesterday’s vote actually shows a steady commitment to Netanyahu, who will head Israel’s twentieth government, and serve as its Prime Minister for the  fourth time.

World Jewry is of course deeply interested in Israel’s politics and passionately follows, sometimes with great concern, everything that is going on in Israel. For most Jews, and non-Jews around the world, Israel’s most pressing problem is the comatose peace process, solving the Israeli-Arab conflict and resolving Jewish identity issues.

Initially, all pre-election polls reflected a gap between the concerns of world Jewry and what’s on the mind of most Israelis with regards to the purpose of the elections. The polls showed that for Israelis, day to day reality, cost of living, quality of life and equality in our society is what most of us living in Israel are concerned about. It’s not because we in Israel do not care, do not want peace or consequently have given up on living in harmony with our neighbors, most of who live just a few miles from our towns.  On the contrary, our disillusionment is a sad result of a deep disappointment in how the peace process panned out, and we are scarred deeply by the Second Intifada.  Many of us in Israel sadly feel that our relationship with our neighbors (both the Palestinians and surrounding countries) is heading nowhere at the moment and that there is not a real, serious and honest partner sitting on the other side of the table.

Surprisingly, the count of mandates shows a different trend than expected. One that clearly reflects a majority of Israelis looking at Netanyahu’s determined concern and stance with regards to Iran, as well as a  commitment to the “greater” Israel vision.

Like most Israelis we too took advantage of the sunny vacation day (Election Day in Israel is by law a vacation day) and after voting first thing in the morning, headed to Jerusalem’s Old City for some site seeing.  Wandering through the Arab market is always a moment of great optimism for me. Jewish, Christian and Muslim ornaments peacefully lay together on one shelf throughout the market.  Jews pray by the Western Wall whilst Church bells play, and the Muslim muezzin calls for prayer. If it all exists together within the great walls of the Old City, a city that witnessed heroic battles and tragic disputes for decades, why can’t it spread out and expand to all areas of life, beyond tourism and exotics sounds and smells, to our real life, our existence. I may be naïve, but I’m a believer.

This Jewish homeland is based on Jewish values as stated in our Declaration of Independence: “The Jewish State will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”  David Ben Gurion’s dream to build a Jewish State, to make the desert bloom, and to excel as a modern country has become a proud reality, but we are, like many countries, a work in progress.

Like previous democratic elections, these past three months proved once again that our own internal disputes, “sinat chinam”( groundless hatred) , tensions and lack of tolerance have the potential to destroy us no less than external threats and weaken us even more.

We should continue to invest in this amazing miraculous land and proudly see it shine, while continuing to dream, hope and pray for days where harmony among ourselves and among our neighbors becomes a solid reality. Together we should look towards a better and brighter future, or as Ben Gurion’s vision states, “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”

For the benefit of the people of Israel and world Jewry I wish our new government sustainability and success in leading us to peace and prosperity.

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center - Israel


Netanyahu at Western Wall: I'm honored by election win, will do everything to protect Israel

3/18/2015

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the Western Wall Wednesday in his first post-election night public appearance after sweeping to victory and said he was moved by the responsibility placed on his shoulders.

“Here, in this place, I am awed by the historical significance of a people renewing itself in its homeland after 4,000 years,” he said, after praying at the Wall and placing a note inside its crevices. “I am moved by the weight of responsibility that the people of Israel have placed on my shoulders, and appreciate the decision of Israeli citizens to chose me and my colleagues against all odds.”

A day after he triggered a barrage of criticism for urging his supporters to go out and vote because “Arab voters were going in large numbers to the polls,” Netanyahu pledged to work for the “welfare and security of all the citizens of Israel.”

Netanyahu was accompanied to the Wall by his wife, Sara. He last went there some three weeks ago, just before going to Washington to speak to Congress. Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog went to the Wall on Sunday, two days before the elections.

 From the Jerusalem Post

 

“Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha”, When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy! 

3/1/2015

Last week, a group of 20 leaders from 15 JCCs embarked on a Jewish journey, which began at David Ben-Gurion’s burial place in Israel’s desert and ended in modern Tel Aviv. This journey was part of JCC Association’s Israel Enhancement program, an initiative aimed to enhance JCC’s Israel programming and engagement.

JCC Association’s commitment and connections with the land of Israel and its people have never been stronger, deeper, and more significant than they are these days.

Our journey took us through Israel’s wonders, as reflected in its innovation, creativity, history, spirituality, vitality and complexity. Modern Israel began with its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), so this is where we began our journey.

David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s modest, yet majestic burial place is my favorite site in Israel as it overlooks what is known as Genesis Land, a land untouched by man; a land full of promises, hopes and dreams. David Ben-Gurion dreamed of a Jewish sovereign state and followed his desire through hardships and battles, to see his dream come true. Ben-Gurion earned the right to declare the Jewish state for all Jews, and ever since, has been a Jewish hero, my Jewish hero.

When I stand by Ben-Gurion’s grave, just in front of the majestic Negev desert, admiring nature’s might and force, connecting with this virgin land, and reflecting on Ben-Gurion’s vision, I feel complete with my human values, Judaism, Zionism and love for this country.

A few days later, we found ourselves at Friday night dinner with 10 lone soldiers from N. America, the United Kingdom and Brazil, who all shared their commitment to the Jewish people, the Israeli army and Zionist values. All had left the comfort of their parents’ homes with its familiar and secure future, and prioritized defending the Jewish homeland and its people.

And then we met Issachar. Issachar grew up in Jerusalem. He didn’t have to cross an ocean, acquire a new culture or learn a new language to serve. Israel is everything he ever knew; yet joining the Israeli army was the most courageous thing he could do, far outside his experience and beyond anything he ever imagined doing. Issachar comes from a haredi family that opposes joining the Israeli army. Once Issachar enlisted, they cut off connection with their son. Just a few miles away from home, and yet lifetime away, separated by values, believes and identity. Issachar is one of many haredi lone soldiers hugged and embraced by the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers. At that Friday night dinner our group embraced Issachar and his friends, thanked them for their service and saluted their contribution. I felt more connected to my land than ever, and proud of its sons like never before.

And then, on the last night of our journey in Israel, one of the group’s participants shared something that illuminated my work in such bright, meaningful light that will forever remind me the scope and responsibility of what I do: Lenae is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew and works at one of our JCCs. She always felt that Judaism “speaks” to her and makes sense in many ways, but was never able to fully accept Judaism as her identity and definition of religion. Lenae struggled with Israel and all of its complexities, the negative publicity and for her, the troubling image she had formed. Lenae’s view of Israel conflicted with her very positive take on Judaism and interfered with her becoming Jewish.

After a week in Israel, seeing this country’s wonders, learning about its history, feeling the spirituality and, yes, discussing its complexity, Lenae experienced a very different Israel than the one she imagined. She discovered a land with which she can associate and of which she can be proud. She is now able to complete her own personal journey and convert to Judaism. Lenae made the decision to become Jewish thanks to the week in Israel with 19 other JCC colleagues!

I’m not a missionary and never was. Preaching to convert to Judaism isn’t my role and I take pride in being associated with a Movement that by definition of pluralism is as open and receptive to all denominations and non-Jews as one. However, realizing the impact one week in Israel can have on one person’s identity — how, by physically experiencing Israel through our work — people see the Jewish homeland in a whole new way, made me realize even more why I have the best job!

So yes, I consider myself extremely blessed to be earning a living from my passions, which are Israel and the Jewish people. I have lived in Israel all my life, traveled extensively throughout this amazing country, and yet, I always find something new I haven’t seen or noticed before. I get to see Israel through the eyes of our JCCs’ leaders and members — through your eyes — and what I see is so great, so beautiful, so real and so different from the way Israel appears in the eyes of critical media and through propaganda.

This Israel we all love and care so much buried just two days ago a little four-year-old girl. Adele Biton was injured in 2013 when terrorists threw rocks at her family’s car; the attack had left her in critical condition. Adele suffered from severe brain injuries and had been disabled ever since. A few days ago she was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia from which her very fragile body couldn’t recover.

Spending a week with 20 JCC leaders, following Ben-Gurion’s vision, meeting amazing lone soldiers and then once again being reminded of the painful price we pay in order to live here gives so much meaning to whom we are and what we stand for.

May Adele’s memory be blessed. May all of our soldiers — lone and native-born — be safe.  And may no child, Jew or Palestinian have to pay the price for peace. Amen.

Today is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar when we sing:  Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha”, When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy!

Chodesh Tov, have a great and joyful month and Shabbat Shalom

 

Leah Garber

Vice President & Director, JCC Israel Center

 

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