A View From Israel

February 2021

A Hug Is So Much More Than Just a Hug

In Modi’in, one of our neighborhood’s kindergartens has been transformed into a local coronavirus vaccination center, operating seven days a week, vaccinating anyone 16 or older, and contributing to the town’s reputation as a leader in this country’s vaccination efforts. Hugging my mother after a year never felt so good, so fulfilling, so comforting. Yes, the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel finally is visible, but still far away and blurry. Nonetheless, a hug these days sows much hope and is valued more than ever before.

Exactly 12 months ago, in mid-February of 2020, the first Israeli with COVID-19 was diagnosed, presumed to have been infected in Italy while traveling with friends. This first COVID-19 case was reported widely, detailing the traveler’s whereabouts so people could determine if they may have been exposed. Funny things happen in a small country, and back then, the news channels listed in detail the places COVID-19 cases were located. As a result, we closely followed our countrymen’s routes and routines for shopping, dog-walking, and visiting with friends, dentists, and psychologists. Satirical television shows added a dose of humor to these reports, easing the stress in the pandemic’s early days.

Fast forward one year.

Our country of 8.8 million people now includes more than 700,000 Israelis—8.5% of the population—who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, topping the list of infection rates for countries with fewer than 10 million residents—nothing about which to be proud. Even after a third lockdown, close to 6.5% of all tests are positive, and the number of young people testing positive is increasing daily. Between 50 and 100 people die each day—the highest death rate since the start of the crisis 12 months ago. So, although we remain hopeful, we have a long way to go before we fully overcome this pandemic.

The good news is that 35% of Israelis have had their second vaccine dose, including 83% of those over age 60. These figures put Israel in the number one spot in the world in terms of vaccinating its population. What’s more, thanks to its unique and efficient health system, Israel has earned the right to function as the largest coronavirus laboratory. Our health system keeps full and permanent medical records for every citizen from birth, enabling the country to track vaccination results and side effects in every patient database. Israel has offered to share this clinical data from the vaccine rollout as needed. Thus far, based on results reported here, Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is showing an efficacy rate very similar to the clinical trial results of 95%. Our ability to provide an instant snapshot of the vaccine’s effectiveness in a large and varied population is among the largest clinical trials ever, and we are proud that our medical system makes it possible.

At the same time, we are challenged to advocate for the vaccine’s safety and short of that, explain why it’s safer to get the vaccine than risk contracting COVID-19 and potentially suffering its serious and sometimes long-term consequences. To resume our pre-pandemic routine requires 90% of the population here in Israel and worldwide to be vaccinated—an ambitious, almost imaginary goal. And yet, the Israeli army is close to achieving it—in concert with severe regulations and harsh limitations on spending time with family during weekend vacations. Within two weeks, at least 85% of IDF soldiers will be fully vaccinated, which means the army may achieve herd immunity.

As with other COVID-19 social initiatives and altruism, here, too, a growing number of volunteers are driving lonely elders and homebound patients for their vaccines, using ambulances and other suitable vehicles, and accompanied by medical personnel when necessary. But the right to vaccination isn’t reserved for Israeli citizens alone: All long-term, gap year participants and semester abroad students have been vaccinated, and foreign workers and refuge seekers who wish to get the vaccine can do so.

Along with pride and patriotism, the pandemic also reveals hidden flaws. These social ills and ideological gaps wound Israeli society, marking it with ugly scars that will not soon heal. Among them are coronavirus deniers who violate directives and incite against vaccines and sections of the ultra-Orthodox community who violate restrictions, open schools, continually hold mass weddings and funerals, and vehemently oppose police enforcement. Above all, this country’s tainted politics is leading to a fourth election during one of the most challenging periods Israelis have known. Politics aside, we’re in a tight race between the pandemic, with its multiplying variants, and our ability to find on-the-go solutions with no time to spare.

At the end of this week, the Jewish world will celebrate Purim, a holiday that more than any other spotlights our resilience, determination, and ability to overcome obstacles. Last year’s celebration came on the brink of social distancing and limitations to being out and about in the world. For me, Purim marks a year since attending a performance in Tel Aviv followed by a street festival along Rothschild Boulevard.

We didn’t know then what we know now, and last year’s Purim celebrations were what we today know to be “super-spreader events,” leading to funerals in Brooklyn, Morocco, Israel, and other Jewish communities around the world. The notion that Purim’s festivities led to communal mourning forced Israel into its first full lockdown.

I’m not sure how we will celebrate Purim this year, nor what our Pesach seder table will look like, but alongside spring’s blossoms, hope is in the air.

It is my wish that warm spring winds and wandering birds will carry my prayers that you, too, will start to see a sparkling light at the end of the long, dark tunnel and shortly, we will all rejoice together with generous hugs for one another. After all, a hug is so much more than just a hug.

Happy Purim! | Chag Purim Sameach! | חג פורים שמח

By Leah Garber

December 2020

Silver Linings Amidst the Challenges

The bright lights of Hanukkah have faded, leaving us in 2020’s darkest days—literally. With COVID-19 cases and deaths increasing, we are isolated, once again, in a third lockdown that is imposing new, harsh restrictions.

Our world has closed, and we are left on our own to mourn more than 3,000 dead in Israel; support the unemployed; and evaluate widespread damage to our economic, social, and health infrastructure—along with life as we previously knew it.

The political arena also erupted in ugliness this year, exposing politicians’ faults and shortcomings. Barely recovered from three election campaigns, a failed unity government, and faint hope the country will come together or rebuild its public trust, Israel is preparing for a third consecutive winter of elections. We are exhausted, disappointed, and, most of all, longing for sanity on all fronts.

But not everything has been bad in 2020.

For Israelis, 2020 marked a blessed new day for the region. For the first time, neighboring Arab countries, one after another, are signing normalization agreements with Israel. Morocco, which recently signed, is the seventh Arab country to recognize Israel’s right to exist, after Egypt’s 1979 and Jordan’s 1994 peace treaties. The agreement with the Moroccans followed the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and the agreement with Sudan.

Dubai, a favorite tourist destination for Israelis, who fill the streets with Hebrew, is like an extension of Tel Aviv—just warmer and with more skyscrapers and fewer pandemic restrictions. During the eight nights of Hanukkah, hanukkiyah were lit throughout the city, Israeli artists performed in Hebrew, and Israeli business professionals are being courted for trade and other collaborations. Unlike in Jordan and Egypt, it is clear the citizens of Dubai are as excited as their leaders about normalizing the relationship with their Israeli neighbors.

The sum of the geopolitical, social, economic, and strategic impacts is far greater than its parts, leading Israel into a new era, one that I hope will convince our Palestinian neighbors to abandon rivalry and terrorism and join the regional peace party.

However, until the long-awaited peace with our Palestinian neighbors arrives, the battle to reach continues to take a blood toll once again. Last week, Esther Horgan, a mother of six left her house in the afternoon for her daily jog in the woods near her home. She never completed that jog, and she never returned home. After hours of looking, searchers found her body. Esther died in agony, her skull crushed by bloodthirsty terrorists. An innocent, life-seeking woman paid the price so many others did before her—the price of hatred and rivalry.

Later that same day, a terrorist tried to kill Israeli soldiers in the Old City. He was neutralized on the spot.

These two painful reminders draw us back to our daily reality, in which existential peace is still far away.

So, we walk past it, sometimes dance around it, and occasionally hop over the extremely delicate seam between our daily existence and its hardships and the bright future that awaits us. As Theodor Herzl wrote nearly 120 years ago, it is a future that “if [we] will it, it is no dream.”

The regional peace euphoria and the opening of new exotic tourist destinations for Israeli travelers are closer than ever and a bright spot at the end of this most difficult year.

There are others, as well, worthy of our recognition and appreciation.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Minister of Health received their COVID-19 vaccines live, immediately followed by all medical teams and elderly populations in Israel. To date, Israel is the global leader among countries inoculating citizens and seeks to vaccinate half of the population within 30 days. At that rate, Israel will contain the pandemic within two months, dramatically reducing hospitalizations and deaths.

But more than the blessed new peace agreements and the vaccine, 2020 was filled with silver linings that brightened our realities daily.

All Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Community Camps (JCCs) across North America, Israel, and around the world, like other social institutions, had to pivot immediately, adjusting their programming and devising solutions to provide members with the most needed ingredient for survival—the sense of belonging, the feel of community. I’m in awe of the creativity, persistence, and commitment JCC professionals demonstrated to lead and bring communities together in new and effective ways.

The “Zoom fatigue” so many experience, may have its downsides, but it’s also driving us to do more and do it better. In 2020, more JCC members joined online gatherings than ever before, actively listening, learning, arguing, celebrating, and, most of all, sharing in our movement’s success.

Most recently, thousands of JCC members from Israel, North America, and around the world participated in Zionism 3.0, an annual conference of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. This year’s week-long online event featured extraordinary thinkers, remarkable doers and makers, and outstanding leaders, all of whom inspired participants to strive for a shared sense of Jewish peoplehood that includes diversity and pluralism to lead us to unity not uniformity.

Indeed, these many silver linings illuminated the virus’ fog and pushed away from the mist, leaving us with a true sense of appreciation for what we, together, accomplished in 2020. Perhaps it wasn’t the worst year after all…

November 2020

Rabin’s Spirit of Hope and Unity Lives On

By Leah Garber

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With his casual gaze and distinctive forelock (in his younger days), Rabin was the quintessential sabra, a genuine Zionist, a military leader, a political warrior, and a Nobel Peace Laureate who truly lived and died for the Jewish State.

At the time, hundreds of thousands of Israelis grieved, joined by Jews and leaders from throughout the world. More than mourning Rabin alone, we mourned the piece of Israel’s soul that died with him. His assassination tore a hole in our country, an open wound that still bleeds, refusing to heal, even after 25 years.

Like the contentious atmosphere in today’s the United States, whose citizens just elected the country’s next leader, Rabin’s tenure as prime minister was marked by divisiveness between peaceniks and opponents of any compromises, creating an atmosphere that overflowed with mutual hostility, accusations, and an urgent sense that the country, as a result of the Oslo Accords, was on the verge of greatness—or disaster.

Today, too, the ongoing pandemic, government instability, and multiple elections once again have led to growing rifts in our society. Wind refuses to dispel the heavy dust of summer, clearing the way for fresh air. Despite the beginning of the rainy season, on many levels, it is still hot and steamy here in Israel.

But not all is lost. Under their wings, autumn’s migratory birds carry a new message, and it is one of reconciliation and peace.

Israel is on the verge of a new era. Shimon Peres, z”l,  Rabin’s political partner, dreamed of a New Middle East, and that dream that is taking shape now in our troubled part of the world.

Following the historic peace agreement among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, Sudan announced last week that after many years of animosity, it, too, will join The Abraham Accords and follow the road to peace by normalizing its relationship with Israel. Other countries in the Middle East also are expected to enter the tent that Abraham, our common ancestor, built more than 7,000 years ago, and into which he welcomed everyone, Hebrews and Arabs, to join his feast as brothers and sisters.

In this spirit of breaking down walls and barriers, Jews from throughout the world are preparing to convene to hear and question and dialogue with an array of voices from across the political spectrum as part of the Z3 Project, an initiative of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. Since its inception in 2015, the Z3 Project has been bringing speakers and participants together to create a new way for Diaspora Jews and Israelis to engage in the 21st century. It aims to honor the diversity of our Jewish voices, even as it works to build the unity and equality of the Jewish People and our common future in a better, stronger Jewish world.

This year, as one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re scaling the Z3 Project globally, and we hope to reach thousands of Jews in locales across the world. Mark your calendars now for the week of Hanukkah—December 10-17, 2020, and plan to join us for some fascinating, critical conversations and a true celebration of  Jewish diversity.

If we learned anything from Rabin’s assassination, it is that we must allow our political differences to surface in democratic, respectful ways so we can aspire to grow and move forward together as a people.

Throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah—and while tuned into this year’s Z3 conference— Jews around the globe will light the holiday’s candles. May these collective lights illuminate the beauty of our people and all humanity, reminding us of Rabin’s flame of hope and flame of peace, and may he be forever remembered for his contributions and sacrifices.

In the spirit of hope and unity that Rabin personified, enjoy this beautiful rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold,” sung by female cantors from around the world. With their voices, they glorify Israel’s capital, the heart and soul of all the Jewish People.

October, 2020

Israelis Are Tired, but Hope Remains

By Leah Garber

The Jewish lifecycle offers us tremendous highs and deep lows, with lots of mundane ones in between. The same is true for the Jewish calendar, with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year at its peak—a day of global Jewish repentance, collective and personal self-reflection, and, most of all, a day to put aside the messiness of life, elevate ourselves, and concentrate on the purpose of it all, the deeper significance of our existence.

Every year, synagogues welcome to their pews rows upon rows of white-garbed worshippers, excited to be together to hear the mournful notes of “Kol Nidrei,” Yom Kippur’s opening prayer. The spirituality, faith, and destiny we share with fellow worshippers throughout the day diminish the long hours of prayer and the hardship of a fast. A sense of community hovers over the entire crowd.

This year, however, the uplifting spiritual experience of the Days of Awe was different than anything the Jewish world has ever known.

It’s hard to imagine that on the holiest day of the year, practically all the world’s synagogues remained shuttered—or nearly so, creating an incredibly painful sight.

In my family, we turned the backyard into our own synagogue for the day. Out in the fresh air, we chanted—alone and together,—grasping melodies and tunes carried by the wind from other families’ yards. We weren’t unique; worshipers across the country and, in fact, throughout the Jewish world had similar experiences.

Israel currently is in the midst of its second full and complete lockdown, an attempt to defeat the pandemic that refuses to give up. It’s a difficult battle, one that already has claimed many lives and left others to suffer the disease’s effects—medical, social, and economic.

This year’s High Holiday season was largely marred by frustration, disappointment, and despair. Initially, we Israelis were proud to be among the world’s countries leading the way in overcoming the pandemic. We were among the first to take severe measures that proved to be successful, and our numbers remained impressively low. We followed health and safety guidelines and had full confidence in actions taken by the government.

As virus cases waned, a new government was formed. With unity on its flag, it promised to put aside political rivalries and worn-out debates in favor of fighting the virus and rehabilitating our society, including the bruised economy. Thanks to our efforts and our resilience, the first wave of the pandemic ended with an Israeli victory.

Unfortunately, a second wave of cases followed the first—and this time we weren’t prepared. We were too busy redeeming our daily routines to even notice. Our leaders, too, wasted no time renewing their political accusations with pointed fingers that obstructed their vision. Reality escaped them, too, as the virus reared its ugly head once again—in greater numbers than before.

With this second wave, the Israeli public lost trust in the country’s leaders, including the prime minister. More than Netanyahu’s indictment or his personal demeanor, it was his conduct of the government, lack of courageous leadership, decision-making based on political interests, and overall confusion caused by mixed messages that led people out into the streets. For weeks, thousands gathered in front of Netanyahu’s home, calling for his immediate resignation.

The Israeli public is tired, tired and hurting like the rest of the world. Tired from the pandemic and its economic fallout. Tired from the growing rift between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, between Netanyahu’s supporters and his opponents. We’re tired from the ongoing fire balloons and rockets fired from Gaza, from threats coming from Syria, from the heat (this was the hottest summer we’ve had in more than 120 years), and we’re tired from living with a lack of trust in our politicians.

Yes, we are tired, but we’re not tired enough to give up. In spite of our exhaustion, we remain hopeful that somehow, we will once again overcome it all.

Last year on Yom Kippur, we prayed for peace and prosperity, and apparently, we did well. Our prayers were answered, and Israel is quickly marching toward a new Middle East in which it seems a growing number of Arab countries will follow the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein in making peace—and bringing prosperity to our bleeding region as well.

In other areas we didn’t do quite as well. Twelve months ago, who could have imagined we should have paid more attention to this prayer: “Adonai, Our God, keep epidemic from your people.” If only…

May 5781 bring us many blessings: peace and prosperity, a renewed Middle East and hope for a better future for the people of our region, a full victory over this pandemic, and a complete recovery from its worldwide damage.

Tonight, as we sit in our decorated sukkot, around a festive table with only a few family members present, let us pray that next Sukkot our tables won’t be large enough to accommodate all those we wish to welcome into our sukkot. May they gather with us—without masks, without social distance mandates, without worry, and without pain.

Wishing you a chag Sukkot sameach and a happy, healthy 5781!

September, 2020

May We Find Relief and Respite, Cure and Blessings in the New Year

By Leah Garber

Autumn’s wandering birds carry foreign scents and a touch of mystery. What secrets hide under their wings, carried like blowing leaves by cool winds? Exaltation is in the air.

It is Elul, the Hebrew month we use to prepare for the Days of Awe that begin with the holiness of Rosh Hashanah and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur.

Meaningful days lie ahead. Festive days. Days of forgiveness and reflection, of serenity and celebration, days of new resolutions, renewed promises, and, most of all, great hope. Hope that we will be blessed with a better year in all ways as we leave behind the miseries, hardships, and pains of 5780 and welcome 5781.

The vast majority of Israelis— close to 70%—live secular lives, proud citizens of the Jewish state who define their Jewishness with one designation alone: Israeli. They do not normally attend synagogue services or observe other Jewish rituals. Being Israeli is enough.

But, as the amount of light in the days lessens, so does Israelis’ cynicism, leaving space for spiritually, tradition, and deep-rooted rituals.

These are the days during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis visit Jerusalem’s synagogues at midnight to join in reciting Selichot prayers, traditional penitential communal prayers seeking Divine forgiveness, as the gates of heaven open. The month—and the prayers—invite melodies, tears, and pleas from across the world to soften whatever lies ahead.

It’s a beautiful scene. Families, children, and groups of adults meet late at night, armed with to-go coffee, a warm wrap, and anticipation and desire to be part of a different experience that is at once exotic and yet their own. It is a return home—to roots and childhood scents. It’s an uplifting experience, leading all groups ultimately to the Kotel, the Western Wall, at the end of the night. How odd, yet so wonderful, to hear traffic reports at midnight, warning drivers to avoid the Old City’s jammed streets.

But not this Elul.

As with everything else, services are limited to 20 people, and almost all group programming and gatherings have been canceled. Whether adhering to restrictive guidelines or driven by self-caution and hesitation, reluctantly, most people are staying home.

How will High Holiday services look this year? Will synagogues be packed with worshipers standing side by side, whispering prayers, chanting, and reciting. Will shofars be blown, joining voices, carrying prayers and remorse from Israel’s synagogues, or will Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur be different this year?

It seems that minyanim (groups of 10 worshipers) will meet in capsules or pods—in private homes, backyards, schools, and community centers. Most likely, a few groups will coordinate, coming together to hear the shofar.

Seeing friends at services, singing together with hundreds of others, greeting them all, and then sharing thoughts of “who wore it better”—the very things that make the holidays festive—will not be part of this year’s High Holidays season in the ways we known it in the past.

Maybe it’s not a bad thing, though. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reflect on the essence of the day and our own behaviors and truly to ask for forgiveness. In fact, I think such things often are better done in small, intimate groups that offer little temptation or distraction—just me, God, my prayers, my remorse, my hope. Of course, these many personal experiences will be joined by all others, carving their way to heaven, shaking the walls of eternity, and, we can hope, changing the verdict.

Some 30,000 Israelis, mostly men, travel to the central Ukrainian city of Uman every year to attend Rosh Hashanah services at the grave of Rabbi Nahman de Breslev, founder of the Breslev Hassidic movement. Packed flights carry them to and from Uman for what is known as a Hassidic, spiritual Woodstock.

This year, Israel’s health ministry is discouraging travel to Uman as part of the country’s attempts to eliminate exposure to COVID-19, not only for those going to the Ukraine, but also for their families and friends back home. As you might imagine, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community considers these restrictions discriminatory and is calling for members to be allowed to participate in the massive gatherings.

Many already have made their way to Uman, prepared to spend a month away from home, doing whatever it takes to be beside their rabbi’s holy grave this year, in spite of the pandemic. Nonetheless, this year, Elul and the High Holidays will be like none we’ve ever seen before—in Israel, in North America, and across the Jewish world.

This season, may wandering birds find serenity; indeed, may we all find serenity. May 5781 bring relief and respite, cure and blessings, and may we have the strength to endure the hardships and challenges of this ongoing pandemic.

“Eternal, our God, hear our voice, have compassion upon us, and accept our prayer with favor. Eternal our God, Let the new year be a good year for us.”

“אבינו מלכינו, שמע קולנו, חדש עלינו שנה טובה”

Shanah tova,




Amidst the Perfect Storm, a Peace Treaty

Late Thursday night, in the midst of a hot, steamy and extremely challenging summer for Israel, the country’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, broadcast a statement to the entire country. For the first time in Israel’s history, a peace agreement will be formed between it and the United Arab Emirates, a federated monarchy of seven emirates that is the strongest, most advanced, wealthy, and innovative Arab country whose influence extends well beyond its small population.

Following the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt and the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan, this newest agreement will be Israel’s third peace treaty with an Arab country; it will be the first, however, that is not conditioned on territorial compromises or land in return for peace.

The treaty between Israel and the Emirates will be based on mutual interests and appreciation of one another’s knowledge, achievements, and regional significance and is expected to encompass a full and warm relationship that includes open borders, diplomatic relationships, tourism, academic, scientific and financial collaborations, as well as and above all else, mutual recognition.

Netanyahu’s statement—during a moment when Israel is going through a perfect storm full of medical, economic, political, social, and security crises—was received like a wave of fresh air, a bright light after many dark days, a dream come true.

After months of messy political allegations, three elections, growing divides and despair, tonight, for the first time in a long time, even Netanyahu’s tired opposition praised this enormous achievement, and for a moment, maybe just one moment, set aside old disputes to indulge, for a change in a piece of good news for a change. In fact, this is great news—for Israel and for the Jewish world.

This evening, Netanyahu promised that other Arab countries will follow suit and that soon the world will see a very different, more settled Middle East. To that and to all of this, I say, “Amen!”

As-salamu alaykum – שלום עליכם – Peace on us all.

Shabbat shalom,

Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

July, 2020

Normality is in Our DNA, But Not This Summer

Israeli summers boast an endless holiday atmosphere. Dressed in casual, light-colored clothing and wide-brimmed hats, people fill the streets—on their way to and from the beach, enjoying alfresco meals under colorful awnings, and racing to finish sweet, melting ice cream treats. A lazy walk carries the scent of sunscreen in the air together with a medley of languages, spoken by hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit us each summer to share our love for this beautiful country.

For some reason, military operations, wars, and times of great tension are popular during the summer here, too. Even during times of crisis, known to Jews across the world as “the matzav,” the security situation, Jewish tourists kept coming, showing their support and courage or merely their longing for warm air and Tel Aviv’s beaches.

But not this summer.

Indeed, “the matzav” might be an apt description for the entire world during the last four months. Of course, this situation is not a result of human violence, but it is equally cruel, nevertheless.

The COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay for a while. More than a winter-like flu that disappears once summer’s rays warm the air, COVID-19 has taught us a thing or two about human abilities and, more so, about disabilities and limits.

Israel approached this unprecedent threat determinedly and with a meticulous plan aimed to defeat it. We were among the first countries to identify the potential risks and consequences, and we took severe steps early on: forcing a complete quarantine of citizens, closing our skies, and fighting the virus as we would one of our many well-known enemies.

The Israeli people responded accordingly. Surprisingly, we followed the rules obediently, and just like in any war, we joined forces to win the battle together.

And we did.

We protected our elderly and flattened the curve. Our numbers were low; in fact, we reached record lows. We loved reciting Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comparisons with other like-size countries. We bragged about our victory and rushed to reopen, discarded caution, hurried to slough off the pandemic as a thing of the past.

And there we were, once again, ahead of the rest of the world, reopening schools, malls, most entertainment and recreation facilities. But for the mandated masks, our world felt as though COVID-19 was history. We gathered in large numbers, celebrated, danced at weddings long postponed, embraced the freedom to be out and about, proud to be the first released from quarantine and its limitations.

And who can blame us?

We Israelis are known for the ability to overcome adversity and restore normality overnight. We are used to being crowned for our resilience, our sturdiness. It’s our might, but it’s also why we survive. We are all offshoots of fighters and winners. Overcoming is what we do; it’s what we have done for 72 years. Restoring normality over and over, after every crisis, is who we are; it is in our DNA.

Even so, the new coronavirus is teaching us lessons and telling us about our inabilities—all of them. Instead of surfing on the waves of the magnificent Mediterranean, we’re caught up in COVID-19’s widely spreading second wave that is bringing record numbers of newly diagnosed cases every day. Unlike in the first wave, in which most cases were among the elderly, the majority of infected people now are in their 20s.

As a result, we all are taking a crash course in modesty and humility, learning to put aside our impatience and our hastiness. Limitations are back. We are allowed to gather only in groups of no more than 10 people, new guidelines are imposed daily, with a full shutdown expected to be announced in days. communities with high numbers of cases are already quarantined, and, once again, the virus is taking over.

The economic fallout, COVID-19’s twin sister, is here to stay, too. Unemployment and it side effects again are on the rise, and Israelis are in the streets, calling for financial benefits and support. Unfortunately, this part of the scenario will linger long after the wished-for vaccine eliminates the virus.

My nephew, Roi, planned to marry Yael, a terror attack widow and a young mom, earlier this spring. Although everything was ready, Yael and Roi had to postpone the wedding because no gatherings were allowed in April. They rescheduled the wedding for August, but it looks like the young couple will have to postpone their wedding once again. Yet one more example of “the matzav,” but this time, “the situation” is not confined only to Israel. We are all in this together, but there is no comfort in sharing it.

May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion, healing the soul, healing the body, and healing all the ill among the people of Israel and all humankind, speedily, without delay, and soon, and let us all say: Amen!

Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.


 May, 2020

Celebrating Shavuot in Israel in the Age of Covid-19

Beginning at sundown on Thursday, the Jewish world will celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. Shavuot is also known as the Harvest Festival.

I like these two dimensions of the holiday—the spiritual one and the earthy one—that offer an accurate reflection of human nature by mirroring one’s aspirations to elevate alongside the basic need to stay rooted.

Growing up in Jerusalem offered me varied opportunities to celebrate the holiday, and I took advantage of them all. From the traditional staying up all night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, surrounded by tens of thousands of people, all inspired by the greatness of the human river, streaming along the old narrow alleys of the capital’s Old City to be present at sunrise for morning prayers.

I also took part in pluralistic gatherings where Torah-lovers, both men and women, shared their wealth of knowledge with mixed crowds, observant and secular Jews, joined by their thirst for study.

In the past, only observant Jews filled the streets on the night of Shavuot, rushing from one class to another as part of the traditional “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” the all-night Torah study. However, Jewish text, wisdom, and practice belong to us all. In more recent years, all-night study events have expanded beyond the closed walls of Orthodox synagogues and yeshivot to reach all, not only synagogue-comers. The streets of Israel are now colorful, filled with people of all ages, from all backgrounds, seeking to be part of Jewish text. These are the true colors of Judaism.

Fifty days ago, we celebrated the Exodus from Egypt around festive Pesach tables, but the exodus was only complete with the giving of the Torah, when the physical redemption from Egypt met ethics, values, rituals, and beliefs that truly make us the Jewish people.

Shavuot, like all celebrations in recent months, will look and feel different this year. Although Israel has fully reopened, we still are required to maintain distance and limit large gatherings. These restrictions will lead to a rich and varied menu of online opportunities, resulting in more Torah study, not less. More than ever, in Israel and around the Jewish world, lovers of Torah will find ways to share their love and curiosity for knowledge.

The Torah, our Tree of Life, is, in fact, our manual for moral living, addressing all aspects of life. In happy times and sorrowful ones, the Torah, leads by example, teaching us how to treat the poor, the orphan, the prisoner, the foreigner, and anyone else we encounter. Given by God to God’s messenger, the Torah shows us that even Moses, the greatest Jewish leader of all time, needed help from his brother Aaron to lead our people. Just as Moses faced life’s challenges and difficulties, so do we. And like Moses, we rely on others to overcome them

In recent months, we have seen endless acts of caring, compassion, generosity, volunteerism. and more, offering us a view of the world that demonstrates that, indeed, we are in this pandemic together. The novel coronavirus, blind to politics, religion, skin color, socio-economic status, or anything that divides us has, in fact forced us to think together, fight together, and overcome together.

The pandemic may not allow us to be physically together to study on Shavuot, but it can’t extinguish our desire to connect—in all our diversity—to celebrate Jewish life, Torah, and the wisdom it can teach us.

 By Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

April 2020

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Tomorrow night, around festive seder tables, we will all ask together: “Ma nishtana…?—Why is this night different​ from all other nights?”

This question—one we recite year after year and often is associated with young children’s excitement at singing their first solo in front of family and friends—will have an entirely new meaning this year. Why is this seder so different from all previous seders? Why are so few gathered around the table? Where are the children, grandchildren, friends, and relatives we were so looking forward to seeing here tonight?

This night is different from all other Pesachs in so many ways—ways that are beyond anyone’s imagination. Pesach 2020 is the first holiday in the history of the Jewish people in which Jews will not welcome a pilgrimage festival in synagogues, where worshipers traditionally stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, greeting one another with “chag sameach,” and return home with the light of community shining onto the festivity of families celebrating together.

For the first time in Jewish history, only a few synagogues worldwide will be open for services. These are the “Corona hotel” synagogues, located in hotels around the country that are hosting COVID-19-diagnosed patients that can do without hospital treatment. All other synagogues, in Israel and across the Jewish world, will remain sealed for the fourth week in a row.

It’s sad to see synagogues closed on any night, but all the more so on Pesach. A very sad sight.

It’s even sadder to know that couples, individuals, and families will sit alone at the Pesachseder table—separated from friends, extended family, and others with whom they otherwise would recite the Haggadah, drink four cups of wine, and enjoy crispy mahtzot, while looking across the room with joy and happiness. Not this year.

It’s sad, too, to see so many soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets of ultra-Orthodox communities, forcing people to stay indoors while the disease, in these neighborhoods more than others, raises its head, take casualties, and leaves wounded towns behind.

As in Jewish communities all over the world, many in Israel will join family seders via Zoom. Others will recite the Haggadah together with neighbors while standing on balconies and in front yards, literally inviting the entire neighborhood to join the song. Note to note, sound to sound, April’s spring winds will carry the lyrics of the Haggadah across the country—and beyond. I can almost hear it now: A loud voice made up of different melodies and versions, all sung together, pushing away the cruelness of the pandemic. A community singing together against a disease forcing us to stay apart.

The largest seder in history will be a televised one. Thousands of people in Israel and beyond will join with others, including strangers, to become fellow seder companions.

We are in this together. From China to Italy, Spain to Australia, Israel to North America, we are united in our efforts to defeat the virus, an unwelcome intruder in our lives.

Ma nishtana? This year, everything is different.

Tomorrow, the 14th of Nisan, we will also commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This Jewish resistance, comprising young Socialists, Communists, and Zionists, arose on the first night of Passover in 1943 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, along with several of his comrades, took poison. Anielewicz departed the world so young, yet left behind so much. He taught us, the generations that have come since, the fruit of Jewish resilience, heroism, determination, and pride.

The Warsaw Ghetto fighters fought against the worst of all, against the beast of beasts, against pure, pure evil. They may not have succeeded in saving the lives of those in the ghetto, but they certainly redeemed their spirit and granted us with their legacy—of which we can be extremely proud.

Pesach, the holiday of freedom. Yet, we aren’t free to walk around or be with others. Pesach, the holiday of spring. Yet we can’t enjoy nature’s beauty together. Nonetheless, we have our health, we have the technology, and we have one another. We are in this together, and together— when the time is right—we shall be free to enjoy nature’s beauty once again.

Following Pesach, the Jewish world will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. We pray that by then we will have resumed our lives—making it possible for us, once again, to celebrate together, hug family and friends, go out, rejoice, be human, live.

Wherever you will be tomorrow night—alone or joined by one or more family members—may you have a meaningful seder, and together with family and friends, and in good health, may we all sing with joy and hope: L’shana HaBaah B’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem!

Wishing you a happy and healthy Pesach!
Leah Garber, Vice President, Center for Israel Engagement


March 2020

Israel’s Elections: May Three Be the Charm

Weary and divided, frustrated and disappointed, the Israeli people went back to the polls yesterday for the third time in under a year.

As a reminder, the elections for the 23rd Knesset (Israel’s parliament) were called under unprecedented circumstances: the two previous Knessets, elected on April 9th and again on September 17th, failed to form a government. This is the first time in Israel’s history that required three elections be held within 11 months—all under the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s trial will begin on March 17th.

Forcing three elections in one year takes its toll. The Israeli public is showing clear signs of fatigue and disgust with the political system.

This round of election campaigning has been more tumultuous than ever. New fields of grudge were sowed, spreading animosity and hostility, reflecting the people’s despair. All this with President Trump’s Mideast plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the background, as well as another vicious round of fighting in Gaza that kept tens of thousands of Israelis in shelters for two days, culminating with the Coronavirus and its attempts to disrupt these elections and normalcy in general.

It was all too familiar, all too expected, and nothing we haven’t heard through the first two rounds of elections. We saw the same pointing fingers, the same accusations, the same pointless interviews and polls, loathed speeches, empty promises. the State craves a functioning government, yet its politicians favor their personal political survival.

Ironically, 71 years ago today, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister formed the country’s first government with 12 ministers. With Israel’s 29 ministers in 2020, Ben Gurion gazes down at us, with no envy for our political system.

Our Jewish homeland is based on Jewish values as stated in the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948.  His dream to build a Jewish State, to make the desert bloom, and to have Israel excel as a modern country has become a proud reality, but we are not completely there yet.

As with most democratic elections, these past 11 months proved once again that our own internal disputes, tensions, and lack of tolerance have the potential to destroy us no less than external threats—and weaken us even more.

We should keep investing in this amazing, miraculous land and proudly see it shine, even as we keep dreaming, hoping, and praying for days in which harmony among us and among our neighbors becomes a solid reality, and together we strive for a better, brighter future, or as Ben Gurion envisioned it: “to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”

As of this morning, 90% of votes were counted, it is now clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won with 36 seats.  Along with other right-wing parties, Netanyahu has an estimated 59 out of the 120 Knesset seats, however still short of the 61 seats needed to form a rightwing and religious coalition. Blue & White got 32 seats only.

Netanyahu now needs to roll up his sleeves and delve into tough negotiations, once again.

The people of Israeli clearly expect the two leaders to form a unity government between their two parties, which together are expected to control a solid majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

However, Gantz declared he will not serve under an indicted prime minister and Netanyahu won’t give up his seat in any unity deal, especially not after a clear win.

And while the left and the right, the secular and the Orthodox, the Jews and Arabs argue, defame, and slander one another, in just one week, the Jewish people will replace the face masks protecting them from the Coronavirus with festive masks to celebrate Purim, the happiest day on the Jewish calendar. Purim reflects the story of our lives today—keeping faith, standing for what is just, and believing in the power of unity.

The beauty of our times, unlike in the days when Mordechai and Queen Esther lived, is that today, most Jews can choose where to live and how to celebrate their lives as Jews.

We in Israel demonstrated this privilege yesterday. 71% of Israelis voted, highest turnout rate since the 1999 elections. Although the system exhausted us, we still believe in our democracy. No, our political system is not without its faults, but for nearly 72 years, it has led the Jewish State through troubled waters and turbulent waves to unprecedented achievements—to be the Jewish State Ben Gurion envisioned.

Although I’m greatly disappointed with today’s lack of leadership in Israel, one that I can look up to with trust and admiration, but I do have deep faith in the people of Israel and I am grateful for the sovereign state I call home and for my civil right to determine its future through democratic elections, even if they occur more often than we would hope.

The Book of Esther, which we will read next week, ends with this passage:

…. in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them. Overturning from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday (Esther 9:22).

Here in Israel, the first flowers are already in bloom, and spring is on its way. I pray for fields of unity and care, spreading hope and joy overturning the bitter fields we sowed this past year!

Chag Purim sameach!
Happy Purim!

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement, Director, Center for Israel Engagement

January 2020

Vow to Keep

Israel’s elections and political disputes were pushed aside yesterday as Israeli leaders joined some 47 world delegates to issue a rallying cry in a fight against anti-Semitism. The first of its kind, it was the largest ever diplomatic gathering that marked the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation.

Gathering yesterday afternoon in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, world leaders joined forces and released a united call against any form of Anti-Semitism, racism, and hate. This unique rally, which included Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles as well as the presidents of Germany, Italy, Austria, and others united by their stance against anti-Semitism. Just before world leaders joined the Israelis in the room for the singing of Hatikava, Israel’s national anthem, Germany president Frank-Walter Steinmeier recited the Shehecheyanu blessing in Hebrew and expressed his deep sorrow on behalf of the German people.

Auschwitz, the Nazi industrial killing site where 1.2 million human beings were murdered and more than anywhere else during WWII, was liberated on January 27th, 1945 by the Red Army. 7,500 prisoners, most of them barely alive, stood by the fences, not knowing if they had died and reached the gates of heaven or if they had survived to see the day where the gates of hell on earth opened, allowing them to walk out as free people, human beings again, instead of just numbers.

And today, 75 years later we live in times where once again xenophobia and its many ugly faces are out in the light with it repeating attempts to re-write history, deny the Holocaust and its horrors, just as we’ve reached a time where fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors live among us. Leaders of the free world must hold hands in unity, reinforce the promise to never forget, and demonstrate, in memory of 6 million slain Jews and the many other millions killed in WWII, a loud and clear cry against evil and hatred of any kind.

Nowhere better or more appropriate than Jerusalem to host such a gathering—the only city sacred to all three major religions. The city of peace and of holiness; the city that throughout history has seen pain and joy, suffering and hope. The city of dreams, where stones touch people that touch stones.

As Israel’s President Rivlin spoke yesterday he vowed to renew the pledge to “never forget” alongside forty-four leaders and the nations they represent. A day to remember. A vow to keep.

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement, Director, Center for Israel Engagement


No Hate. No Fear.

Today, the tenth of the Hebrew month of Tevet, commemorates the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem in 589 BCE by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Ultimately, this siege led to the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jews to Babylonia.

With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the 10th of Tevet was declared Yom Hakadish Haklali (Collective Day of Kaddish). It is a collective reciting of the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for those who died in the Holocaust whose precise date of death is unknown. Yom Hakadish Haklali reflects our shared responsibility, our joined destiny, the notion of Kol Yisreael Arevim Zeh Bazeh—that all of Israel are responsible for each other.

Today we also mark the 147th anniversary of the birth of one of Israel’s greatest pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry, Hayim Nahman Bialik. In his poetry, Bialik gave voice to the revival of modern, sovereign life in the Jewish land. Although Bialik unfortunately died prior to Israel becoming a state, he will always be recognized as Israel’s national poet.

In 1903, Bialik was commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Odessa to travel to Kishinev, where in the course of a three-day pogrom, 47 Jews had been murdered. His experience interviewing the survivors led him to write the epic “City of Slaughter,” which reflects Bialik’s bitterness at the absence of justice and the indifference of nature.

Unfortunately, today one does not need to travel as far as Kishinev to witness anti-Semitism firsthand. Horrific recent attacks in NY, adding to the killings in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City, clearly mirror the rise in anti-Semitic abuse and violence in North America and Europe. From parliaments to campuses, verbal and physical assaults on Jews are increasing, showing that the monstrousness hatred deemed taboo for much of the second half of the 20th century, is on the rise once again, showing its ugly head on the surface. It has become mainstreamed and normalized, allowing its demonized actions to make way through society, leaving renewed trails of blood and animosity.

Bialik mourned 47 innocent victims of 1903 Kishinev. Victims of cruel antisemitic were a result of propaganda from Bessarabian, the most popular newspaper in Kishinev. It regularly published articles with headlines such as “Death to the Jews!” and “Crusade against the Hated Race!” In addition, the paper insinuated that a young girl who had committed suicide and a boy who was found dead were murdered by the Jewish community for the purpose of using their blood in the preparation of matzot for Passover. These insinuations and allegations sparked the deadly pogrom.

In 2020 America and Europe, our haters are more sophisticated than their 19th-century brothers in ideology, but their hatefulness and animosity is not less cruel and most certainly, it is not less painful.

Antisemitic activists today feed their hate from anti-Zionism propaganda. Propaganda that claims to expose what in their minds is reality but is actually a twisted reality based on lies, personal agenda, pure evil, and rancor.

Back in Tel Aviv, Bialik devoted himself to cultural activities and public affairs. In a celebratory ceremony in 1925, Bialik delivered the keynote speech in honor of the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he served as a member of its board of governors.

By writing in Hebrew, Bialik contributed significantly to the revival of the Hebrew language, which before his days existed primarily as an ancient, scholarly tongue. His influence is felt deeply in all modern Hebrew literature. In his own intellectual, yet rooted presence, in his diligent work and involvement, Bialik contributed greatly to the cultural foundations of the soon to be born Jewish State, leaving his mark forever as one of the founders of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city.

Bialik fought antisemitism in the only way possible: by Jewish creation, Jewish revival, focusing on the good, building a stronger sense of who we are as the Jewish people, offering his contribution to us becoming a better version of ourselves.  Not for the sake of addressing antisemitism or proving it’s based on lies. Anti-Semites will not be convinced. They aren’t looking for the truth or seek clarity. Their minds are set, fixated by ancient hate, bound to one another by nothing more than unjustified, unreasonable odium. Bialik laid his building block for our own sake, for a brighter future based on culture, intellect, arts, and beauty.

Recent antisemitic actions are the direct opposite. They are based on ignorance, prejudice, and bias. They are humanity’s ugliest face. At times trying to hide behind human rights, and mostly looking for any excuse, any imaginary, false justification.

This past Sunday, tens of thousands of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, marched in New York City against anti-Semitism and hate calling for “No Hate. No Fear.”  Here in Jerusalem, although not quite as large, a similar rally took place in the streets of the city. The resilience and bravery of North American Jewry and Jews around the world in the face of this ongoing wave of violence is a source of inspiration, pride, and strength.

I hurt with my brothers and sisters across the ocean, thousands of miles away but never closer than now. I cry for the innocent victims in Pittsburgh, Poway, New Jersey, Monsey, Halleh Germany, Paris and other cities around the world that have been shaken by evil and cruelty, beaten, left to mourn their dead, heal and then spread hope. We are stronger than hate, stronger together, forever.

“Antisemitism begins with Jews, but it never ends with them. A world without room for Jews is one that has no room for difference, and a world that lacks space for difference lacks space for humanity itself.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement, Director, Center for Israel Engagement


A nation on hold

The phrase “for the first time in Israel’s political history” begins to wear thin, but nevertheless, it is still true.

Once again, no candidate was able to form a coalition, and following a 21-day grace period in which last-minute attempts were made to save the country from the turmoil it’s in, Israel will most likely be heading to a third round of elections in one year. It’s unprecedented, frustrating, incredibly disappointing. During the next 21 days, a majority of 61 serving members of parliament may ask President Rivlin to appoint as prime minister any member of Knesset including those candidates who have already failed to be elected in previous rounds.

As a reminder, on April 9, 2019, the people of Israel elected the 21st Knesset. Following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to produce a government, the 21st Knesset, also known as the shortest-lived Knesset, voted to dissolve itself, triggering new elections on September 17, 2019.

Once again, opposite of the people’s will, Israel found itself in the midst of stormy, raging elections, only to discover that this second round produced nothing but growing animosity, increased hostility, and great disappointment from the State’s leaders and their inability to transcend personal interest and egos, to do what’s right for the people, and for the Jewish State.

And now, for the third time in the span of a year, we may face another round of elections. It’s not just a waste of time and resources; it’s evidence of how Israel’s leaders are removed from the people, representing only their personal interests, leading the state to a gloomy chapter of politics, and crippling the state’s ability to fully function.

It’s a sad day today in Israel. This evening, adding to these unprecedented times, attorney general Dr. Avichai Mandelblit recommended that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust, and bribery charges in three separate cases. Netanyahu is expected to respond shortly to the attorney general’s recommendation to indict. Though Netanyahu will not be compelled by law to step down immediately, the recommendation will certainly harden the opposition’s stance.

How does a state with a transitional government really function? Well, not great. Most budgetary decisions can’t pass, leaving many governmental employees with no salaries for months, major governmental bodies having to dismiss employees due to frozen financial resources, upcoming reforms on hold, planned initiatives tabled, and all together, a disturbing state of a country on hold.

But as I often do, I see the sunshine through the clouds, a sign for optimism and reasons for hope, this time coming from across the ocean, 7,400 miles away, found at the great Jewish community of Palo Alto, California.

I was privileged to be among 1,000 people from across North America and Israel, spending a day together deliberating, learning, sharing and most of all, celebrating Jewish peoplehood at its best.

Zionism 3.0, the fifth annual conference remains North America’s largest conversation about Diaspora Jewry and Israel, led by the Oshman Family JCC.

The conference titled “1 People, 2 Centers, 3 Opinions” was presented in reference to the zeitgeist of the current state of Jewish history and Zionism, where for the first time Israel is a strong sovereign state alongside a thriving, flourishing, Jewish community of North America. Together, Israel and North America,  have earned this great moment in Jewish history, we are equally vested in the outcomes of both communities, and we can deliberate on the essence of our unique bond. Now is the moment to immerse us in the complex and fascinating conversations concerning Jewish peoplehood, shared vision, shared cause, and shared hopes.

Hopes for Israel to continue to be the strong sovereign Jewish state that it is, to fulfill the moniker “Start Up Nation” , and for Israel, together with the vibrant, creative Jewish community of North America, to be the “light unto the nations” we are called on to be.

Elections for the 23rd Knesset would likely take place in early March.

Looming over the entire process it's the past months’ polluted atmosphere.

Dry, desert-like winds are blowing in Jerusalem, the rain we so badly long for is late this year, watering dry lands elsewhere. Leaving us here desperate for fresh air, eager for tranquility, the serenity that will wrap us with its grace and kindness, allow us to be genuinely good to each other, force our leaders to end this mess they created, and restore the trust in our political system.

The next few months will certainly be interesting, I can only hope for them to be better, to heal our fractured society, to spread hope, and again, to be what we truly are, the “light unto the nations”.

Shabbat shalom,

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement, Director, JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement


September 2019

In the aftermath of Israeli elections

On my way to a family holiday abroad, I was forced to handle some flight delays that apparently can’t be avoided. Standing by the airline counter along with other frustrated passengers from across the world, I was approached by one of them who asked me where we were from. As soon as she heard we were from Israel, she reached out and held me, offering the most spontaneous, unexpected hug I ever got, and said, “I’m from Iran”.

Just like that, in the middle of a bustling airport in Europe, a human gesture proved how life without the interference of politics, without the intrusion of interests and power, can be so much better, brighter, and broader.

During one of the most political weeks, the State of Israel has experienced in recent years, in the aftermath of a second parliament elections in five months and following extremally polarizing campaigns, I can only wish the kind, genuine Iranian lady I met in Norway will be the norm. It was an example of how two people with a shared desire to strive above the ugliness of politics, relate to one another as fellow human beings rather than rivals.

I may be naïve. After all, I was on my way to a dream holiday so being naïve was my state of mind at that point, shedding my usual Israeli cynicism. Yet, it was a great reminder of what we should hope for—the only way to embark on a vacation.

Yesterday, the People of Israel were called to elect 120 Knesset (Israel’s parliament) members, to determine who will serve in the opposition and who will lead and determine what type of future Israel will have.

As a reminder, the upcoming elections for the 22nd Knesset were called under unprecedented circumstances: the previous Knesset, elected on April 9th, decided less than two months later on its early disbanding after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government. This is the first time in Israel’s history that two elections were held in the same year. These elections ran under the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pending indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Forcing two elections in one year has its toll. The Israeli public is showing clear signs of fatigue, disgust from the political system, and apathy.

In general, the public’s optimism about both the future of democracy in Israel and the future of security in Israel is declining influenced by the growing tension in the north and the ongoing tension in the south with politicians too busy in personal survival vs running the State.

Relative to April’s elections, this time around more Israelis prefer to see the two large parties form a unity government—creating a strong, centric coalition, stable enough to govern for the next four years, lead the State through stormy waters and threatening winds.

And while the Left and the Right, the Secular and the Orthodox, the Jews and Arabs argue, defame, and slander one another, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president hosted the launch of the Declaration of Our Common Destiny initiative, calling on Jews of all ages, affiliations, and nationalities to discuss, debate and shape the future, the joint future, of the Jewish people worldwide.

President Rivlin was quoted saying, “We must embrace our unity and our diversity. We must see our diversity not as a source of weakness, but a source of strength.” He added, “As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel is essential for the survival of the Jewish people. In the same way, a thriving Jewish people, our fifth tribe, is essential for the survival of the State of Israel.”

President Rivlin’s call should be addressed to our politicians. Although Blue and White won with a slight advantage, we woke up this morning to a reality with no clear winner in a race that was too close to call. Neither center-left nor right-wing bloc is able to muster majority. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, may be heading over to the Opposition’s benches.
The leader whose party wins the most votes is traditionally the first person tasked with assembling a governing coalition within 42 days, and if he fails to do so, the President will ask the second largest party to give it a try. If neither is successful, a third round of elections will be forced on the people of Israel, a disaster by all means.

Close to 70% of Israelis voted, a similar percentage with similar results of the April elections five months ago. The Joint Arab party is the third largest party with 11 seats, but all eyes face Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu party who with his 9 seats will be the deal breaker. Although Liberman is clearly a right-winger, he is an ideological secularism. This positions him to serve with either Netanyahu or Gantz.

The next 42 days will be fascinating, frustrating and most of all, critical in many aspects. Will Netanyahu, after 10 consecutive years as Prime Minister step aside and allow former Chief of Staff, Beny Gantz to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister? Or, what most Israelis hope for, will the two leaders join forces and form a unity government to address Israel’s great needs together, representing the People’s will?

The days are getting shorter. Leaves are blowing in the wind and wandering birds fly high above, looking for serenity. The Days of Awe surround us; fill our hearts and souls with prayers, exaltation, and hope.

In 10 days, the Jewish people will gather around beautiful, festive tables, dip apples into honey and welcome the new Hebrew year with great expectations for a sweet, better—so much better—5780. A year where a simple hug from an Iranian stranger will be the common and animosity the uncommon.

I pray the New Year be filled with all the promise that lies ahead. May the curses and adverse circumstances of 5779 come to a close, and a new year, with its blessings, rise upon us.

“אבינו מלכינו, שמע קולנו, חדש עלינו שנה טובה”
“Lord our God, hear our voice, bless this year.”

Shanah Tovah,

Leah Garber
Vice President, Israel Engagement | Director, JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement

Summer 2019

A Summer to Remember

This week we mark 115 years since the passing of Theodor Herzl, known as the “Visionary of the State,” a young and passionate leader who died at the age of 44.

Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer who grew up in a secular family in an assimilated environment.  He is, most notably, the father of modern political Zionism.

Herzl’s life was changed following his personal experience as the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse. Writing from France for this newspaper, Herzl followed the 1895 Dreyfus affair, a notoriously anti-Semitic political scandal in France in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Witnessing firsthand and for the first time the mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial, hearing chants of “Death to the Jews!” from the crowds, seeing what hatred and an anti-Semitic environment can lead to, transformed Herzl’s identity and converted him to a passionate Zionist.

These dramatic events led the young, and until then passive journalist and reporter of events, to become an active leader, one who drives change, steers waves, and offers a different vision for the future. In 1897 Herzl founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where he promoted Jewish immigration to what was back then Palestine (Israel of today) in an effort to form a Jewish state. Though he died before its establishment, he is known as the visionary who imagined a State of Israel—the leader who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism.

Herzl, like many other Jewish leaders, was greatly impacted by the events surrounding him, by Jewish misery, born of discrimination, animosity, and hatred. He witnessed a reality where he felt something must be done, justice must prevail, a Zionist solution should be implemented.

Today, 115 years later, a strong, sovereign Jewish state exists. Herzl’s dream is now our reality. Zionism need not result from hostility directed at our people, but rather should be a source of pride and strength.

This week JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement’s fifth teen group of this summer ends its Israel summer program. In all, there will be six groups of teens over the summer, who came from JCCs and independent camps throughout North America. They spent their summer wandering the country, figuring out this beautiful maze, inhaling its air, feeling its magic, being part of something truly powerful and unconquerable—Jewish pride.

These lively teens, so full of energy, will return home different, transformed. Yes, they will be tanned thanks to our Israeli sun, but something within will change as well. After learning so much about Israel—their Jewish homeland—they finally have had a chance to experience it for themselves. How fortunate they are to be part of the magic for a month, spend time with Israeli peers, witness what a Jewish sovereign state feels like, think about it, deliberate it, reflect and then, think again.

Last week I joined one of the groups on their visit at the newly renovated Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. I was born and raised in Israel; I’ve seen it all and thought I had heard it all. But right there, on the magnificent shore of Jaffa, overlooking a horizon with endless opportunities lies this architectural jewel, the Peres Center, a dream of Israel’s ninth president, the late Shimon Peres. One cannot be indifferent to this shrine of hope and knowledge, pride and optimism, vision and reality.

The Peace Center presents the incredible story of Israel, the “startup nation,” and showcases the diverse fields and people behind Israeli innovation. Visitors walk through the wonders of Israeli creativity, housed in a state-of-the-art facility supported by contemporary technology.

Along with the teens, I walked through virtual reality, holograms and Peres’s legacy. Along with the teens, I was amazed and in awe. It’s not everyday that I find myself surrounded by wisdom, geniuses, creativity and the human mind’s endless ability to better the world, heal and offer solutions and hope, reach for the tomorrow, repair today.

When I left the building, the open sea awaited with its promise and enigma, waves and shore. So many possibilities, all within our reach if we only choose wisely, take the right path, follow great visionaries and leaders.

Herzl became the ultimate Zionist because of the suffering and pain he saw and experienced. Shimon Peres was a Zionist who built and dreamed. I’m a Zionist thanks to these two great leaders who enabled a miraculous Jewish state to be my reality, one filled with pride, one that revels daily in its beauty.

Herzl taught us: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Shimon Peres shared that, “When I was a child, Israel was a legend more than a reality. She emerged from a dream, and today she has surpassed that dream.”

Thanks to them, that dream is ours today. Our traveling teens, our Jewish future, saw that so clearly this summer. A summer that will transform their Jewish identity, a summer to remember.

Leah Garber

Vice President, Israel Engagement | Director, JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement

May 2019

Twelve torches of Israel

Soon, the Jewish people will pause for a moment of silence.

Sirens will wail across the Israel like a single cry carried in the wind. A nation will bow its head, whispering a prayer for peace, with deep gratitude for those who made the ultimate sacrifices.

27,904 men and women, our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters, casualties of bloody wars, victims of vicious terror attacks, including the four people killed on Sunday by Hamas missiles fired from Gaza. Those who have been killed for being Israeli, for being Jewish.

Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s National Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, is a sacred, holy day. A day that brings us together, closer, weeping for our dead, looking for comfort.

Yom Hazikaron, more than any other day, is the day I feel my Israeli identity at its strongest, prouder, so grateful, humble and appreciative, yet so sad.

27,904 is more than a number, it is 27,900 unfulfilled dreams, 27,904-scarred families, bleeding souls, broken hearts.

Its 27,904 laughter we miss daily, its endless pain that never heals, it is the black hole that never cease to grow and deepen.

However, this year, Yom Hazikaron bears another dimension. The grief has spread beyond our borders, the sorrow has touched members of other Jewish communities. They, too, have become victims of hatred, victims of terror, far away from the land of Israel.

Twelve innocent victims of the two massacres in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California have joined this year’s long list of terror victims. Their families now have joined the ever-growing bereaved family—those who walk hand in hand with fellow mourners who have lost their loved ones and forever cry.

The two Shabbatot of Oct. 27 and Apr. 27 will be remembered as landmarks in the history of the Jewish community of North America. The monstrous beast has awakened, lifting its vicious head, spreading fear and animosity.

Anti-Semitic attacks increased by 13 percent worldwide in 2018, according to Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center, marking it as the most violent in decades. With nearly 400 severe attacks and the highest number of casualties, this past year reminds us of dark days where hatred for the sake of hatred was acceptable.

But it is not. It never was. It never can be.

As the State of Israel sheds its sorrow to replace it with joy and gratitude in celebrating its 71stanniversary, Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh will be standing on top of mount Herzl in Jerusalem, lighting a torch on behalf of Jewish unity and solidarity. Jeff will carry the flame for the eleven victims killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and for Lori Gilbert-Kaye who died in Poway.

The Jewish People torch will be joined by 11 other torches carried by Israelis from all backgrounds, representing Israel’s beauty, the Jewish people at their best and Jewish pride at its zenith.

Twelve torches marking the 12 tribes of Israel. United in sorrow, we shall rejoice and celebrate Israel’s independence with pride, while remembering those no longer here with us today.

Leah Garber,

Vice President,  Director, JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement


April 2019

Reaching the moon and beyond…

Tomorrow night the Jewish people will gather around festive Pesach Seder tables and recite from the Haggadah: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he had left Egypt.”

Pesach, known as the celebration of our freedom, marks the redemption of the Israelites after hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were not alone in their liberation from Egypt over 3,500 years ago—we all were.

More than anything, the Exodus from Egypt granted humankind the concept of “freedom,” both physical and spiritual.

Seventy-one years ago, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the rebirth of the Jewish State. Since that day, May 14, 1948, the Jewish homeland, like a boat on stormy water, has been shaken, tossed and slammed by vicious waves. Nevertheless, just like a boat, we have also seen plenty of sunshine, blue skies and blessed winds. Never in our 71 years has the boat capsized, nor has the spirit of our Jewish State ever broken.

Repeatedly, miraculous acts of spiritual strength, moral vigor and intellectual abilities led us through dangerous water, steering our path not only to survival, but also to prosperity, to thriving, to becoming light upon the nations, to reaching the tomorrow, today.

This Pesach I will be sitting at our Seder table feeling more liberated than ever. The State of Israel, with its notorious sense of chutzpah (nerve), reached the moon!

We have broken every possible barrier: our desert blooms, our faucets run desalinated water. Our technological achievements provide solutions to problems worldwide and improve everyone’s quality of life. We repair the world, all of it, including the worlds of our hostile neighbors—and we reach the moon!

SpaceIL is the first recipient of the $1 million Lunar XPrize Moonshot Award. Israel is the seventh country to get to the moon, and the fourth country to reach the lunar surface.

In the final moments of Beresheet’s—the Israeli spacecraft, meaning “in the beginning”—four million-mile journey, approximately 488 feet above the moon’s surface, engine problems caused the landing failure, just as the spacecraft touched the moon. As we saw on the livestream, the spaceship, “reached the moon, but not in the way we had hoped”. We may have not landed as hoped, but we certainly launched not only Beresheet, the first Israeli spaceship, but also a new desire, now joined by millions of Israeli dreamers, mostly children, to reach the moon—and beyond. The work on Beresheet II have already begun. We will eventually land with pride, we always do.

However, reaching the heavens is not Israel’s only great achievement at the moment.  In a world-first, Israeli scientists have created a live heart in a revolutionary new 3D-printing process that combines human tissue taken from a patient’s own biomaterials and cells. Israeli scientist once again are paving the way for new technology that would make it possible to develop any kind of tissue implant from one small, fatty tissue biopsy.

Being the light unto the nations means more than technological developments and mind-blowing achievements. It requires our spirit and ethics to join forces and define our liberated being to be what it is.

The outgoing Israeli minister for culture announced that in honor of Israel’s 71st anniversary, the mothers of three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists in 2014 would take part in this year’s torch-lighting ceremony marking Israel’s Independence Day.

These courageous three women became a symbol of unity, through their ability to rise from sorrow and personal mourning to the holy task of unifying and rebuilding. They were able to look ahead to tomorrow, through teary eyes today.

Only a liberated soul, one that would not surrender to terror and evil, or refuse to give up and break, can rise from ashes. This exemplifies what being a free people really means.

The Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) (6:2) teaches us, “No person can truly be considered free, except the one who engages in the study of Torah.” Allowing myself a different interpretation, Torah in a wider sense offers us a way to push our intellect, delving into the profundities of the human spirit, always reaching beyond, pushing away any physical or spiritual boundaries. That is what true freedom is about!

Standing beside those three mothers at the torch-lighting ceremony this year will be Morris Kahn, the Israeli billionaire, and funder of SpaceIL and Kfir Damari, one of the company’s founders.  On one hand, we have the triumph of the human spirit; on the other, the triumph of our imaginations.

Beresheet took off to the moon with the message Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel live, on board. Thanks to dreamers and believers, the people of Israel are indeed chai, alive, today more than ever, thriving to better than tomorrow, as a free people in our free land.  

“We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is]  hard … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept … and one we intend to win.”—President John F Kennedy, 1962

Wishing you a wonderful, happy and liberated Pesach,


Vice President,  Director, JCC Israel Center


February 2019

The honey and the sting – על הדבש ועל העקץ

The honey and the sting – על הדבש ועל העקץ

All of us in Israel were excited to see the Shalva Band do so well on “Rising Star,” Israel’s televised talent show that recognizes outstanding performances, complete with judges, audience voting, and lots of hopes and dreams.

The Shalva Band, made up of excellent musicians, are no ordinary group. Eight unique talents perform to the highest musical standards, inspiring crowds with its repertoire and charm, with hope and optimism.

They are the crown jewel of Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, one of Israel’s many outstanding nonprofits supporting those with disabilities. Shalva serves all participants regardless of religion, ethnic background, or financial capability. Shalva is dedicated to providing transformative care for individuals with disabilities, empowering their families and promoting social inclusion.

Shalva’s comprehensive life-cycle programming provides leading-edge therapies, inclusive educational frameworks, social and recreational activities, employment training, and independent living, as well as respite and family support. Most JCC groups visiting Israel through our JCC Association’s Israel programs enjoy the opportunity to visit Shalva and witness miracles first hand.

Therefore, when the Shalva Band made it to the finals, it was a moment to remember, it was the proof that the human spirit can overcome physical disabilities. We all had our eyes on the prize: the Eurovision Song Contest.

Thanks to Netta Barzilai’s win with her song “Toy,” last May in Portugal, this year, for the third time, Israel will host the international song competition held primarily among the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union.

Since its inauguration in 1956, Eurovision has been broadcast every year, making it the longest-running annual international television contest and one of the world’s longest-running television programs. It is also one of the most-watched non-sporting events with audience figures of between 100 million and 600 million internationally.

Israel has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1973 and has won the contest four times. The only time Israel did not participate was when the contest in The Hague conflicted with Yom Hazikaron—Israel’s Memorial Day—a day where no Israeli feels like singing and celebrating.

The competition is hosted each year in the country of the previous year’s winner. Because of Barzilai’s win, this coming May, Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew City, will decorate itself in festivity and embrace this wonderful opportunity to share with the world our real Israel. Some nations, particularly Arab ones, will choose for political reasons not to celebrate, because of Israel’s participation.

Nonetheless, 42 countries will send their winning teams to sing, celebrate and above all, rejoice in the language we all speak so well, the language of music. Dare to Dream is the 2019 official theme, but for the Shalva Band, their spectacular performance, seen widely in clips on social media, the dream is not to be.

The Shalva Band was hoping to represent Israel at the contest. They would have been featured not only as Israel’s best musical band today, but also as Israel’s gift to people with disabilities, the gift of equal opportunities and inclusion. The gift of daring to dream. You can watch their amazing finalist performance of their original song, “I See Something Good Within You,” here.

However, because of Eurovision’s strict guidelines and regulations, staging of compulsory rehearsals that will take place on Friday night and Shabbat, just prior to that night’s performance.

Following the Eurovision organizers refusal to offer any exceptions for the Jewish state’s ultimate winner, Shalva Band dropped out of the contest because it would force some of its observant members to perform on the Shabbat, which contradicts their beliefs and traditions.

How ironic and sad that there were no limits to these eight amazing young musicians until they encountered technical guidelines. They have performed all over the world, their voices allowing others to see what their own blind eyes cannot, spreading beauty among so many, sharing hope and brightness greater than the darkness that has stolen their sight. But here, in their home country, for the first time, they have reached the glass ceiling. Dare to Dream? Perhaps under very different circumstances that respected religious values and choices more than regulations they might have.

It is the honey and the sting. The Shalva Band’s stellar achievement and the crass reality of Eurovision’s inability to compromise.

Shalva, the organization behind the band, isn’t alone in Israel addressing special needs, working for inclusion for those with disabilities and supporting at-risk populations. Caring, nurturing organizations focused on equal opportunities abound, and another one of these outstanding organizations is Yaelim, Nature Therapy for Youth-at-Risk in Jerusalem, which uses nature as an all-encompassing therapeutic resource to empower the city’s marginalized youth, religious and secular, Jewish and Muslim and to give them the life skills they need to integrate fully into greater Israeli society.

Nineteen-year-old Ori Ansbacher volunteered at Yaelim, as part of her national service following high school, an alternative to military duty. Late Thursday evening Ori was found murdered in the Ein Yael forest of Jerusalem near Yaelim, where she often went to read or write poetry. A 29-year-old Palestinian has been arrested for her rape and murder. He left his home in Hebron that morning with a knife and a single goal.

 Leah Garber | February 13, 2019 

January 2019

afra and Saifa– The Book and the Sword

 This past Shabbat two Israeli icons left this world leaving behind their legacy, devotion and spirit to guide us through times ahead.

As the sun set, and candles across the country burned with Shabbat’s holiness, their brightness carried Amos Oz’s soul through its final journey. The State of Israel and the Jewish world missed a heartbeat, when the beloved author took his last breath.

Oz, an Israeli writer, novelist, journalist, and intellectual was known as the country’s most accomplished writer—with 33 published books translated into 45 languages. Oz was a recipient of numerous honors and awards, among them the Legion of Honor of France, the Goethe Prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Prince of Asturias Award in Literature, the Heinrich Heine Prize, and the Israel Prize.

I loved how this wizard of Oz played his magic with words. I loved his profound understanding of the human soul and his sensitive craving of life’s complexities and mysteries.

Amos Oz and I were born in the same Jerusalem neighborhood, just a few blocks from one another. Although decades apart in age, we inhaled the same Jerusalem air—a unique blend of the old and new, the spiritual and mundane. We both adored the poet Zelda—Oz’s first and beloved teacher and my great aunt. Above all, I loved Oz’s Israeli-ness. He was the ultimate sabra (native) in the way he looked, rebelled and spoke.

He was the product of Jerusalem’s sorcery, kibbutz ruggedness, military inurement and the dessert’s serenity.

“I wrote a novel about Israelis who live their own lives on the slope of a volcano. Near a volcano one still falls in love, one still gets jealous, one still wants a promotion, one still gossips.” –Amos Oz

A vocal activist, associated with the Israeli peace camp and one of the founders of the Peace Now movement, Amos Oz forever will be remembered as a man of the book.

Shortly after Oz’s death, weeping angles, wrapped their wings around the beloved, and holy in so many ways spirit of Tzvika (Zvi) Levy, known as “the father of lone soldiers.”

Levy, as was Oz, was an Israel Prize laureate.  A renowned social activist, he spent his last years suffering from a muscular disease, surrounded by thousands of Israeli soldiers, calling him abba, father.

Levy founded the Lone Soldiers organization in 1997, which supports some 3,500 incredible young people annually who leave their homes and families abroad, to volunteer for Israeli army service. The organization also serves more than 1,500 Israeli soldiers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I had the great fortune to meet Col. Levy as part of my work with JCC Association a few years ago. I joined a group of teens with special needs from Florida touring the country as part of a unique program for people of the Michael-Ann Russell JCC in Miami for people with disabilities. The trip took these beautiful teens to one of the Israeli army’s most prestigious bases, the Oketz dog unit base. Col. Levy greeted us in person, shaking the hand of each of the teens, welcoming them to the army and inviting them to wear uniforms and be an Israeli soldier for an hour.

Levy then gave me the book, Lone Soldiers, Israel’s Defenders from Around the World, a tribute to lone soldiers who have paid the ultimate price giving their lives in defense of the State of Israel. This sacred book, along with Levy’s smile and faithfulness will forever illuminate my office and remind me of how great the human spirit can be.

When you get to the base tomorrow for basic training, one of the first things they (army commanders) will do is to have you run 2,000 meters. It’s a personal test, not to see how fast you run but what you do when somebody falls.” –Tzvika Levy.

Between Oz’s books and Levy’s sword, this past Shabbat reminded us of Israel at its best, whispering the everlasting story of our beloved homeland, known for its culture, arts, literature and humanities. We are the People of the Book, but reality has forced us repeatedly to hold onto our swords and to defend ourselves. Levy purified his sword, shaped it in his form, stamped it with care, compassion and a true sense of peoplehood—Jewish peoplehood.

Oz’s genius was a gift to tell our story. Levy’s was compassion to embrace those who chose to share in it. These are beautiful images of who we are, what we should aspire to and can be, and how the entire Jewish world is a part of them.

May Amos Oz and Tzvika Levy be forever cherished in our hearts and remembered for their contributions by many great followers carrying on their legacy.

Wishing us all a wonderful, peaceful and blessed 2019.


November 2018

Today the Jewish world marks Hanukkah’s first day, a holiday celebrating Jewish rebellion and resilience, determination and triumph of spirit.

The story of the Maccabees takes us back to the year 164 B.C.E when the Maccabean rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the revolt against the Seleucid Empire.

In order to light the menorah, the Temple’s lamp that illuminated the entire city of Jerusalem, the Maccabees needed pure olive oil; however, they could only find one untouched jug of this valuable liquid—only enough to light the lamp for one day. Instead, it lasted for eight days and ever since has served as the symbol of the holiday. We not only stood against the Greek oppressors, but also were able to miraculously restore our ceremonies and traditions thanks to great determination and belief. The long-lasting nature of the one tiny jug resembles the endurance of our people, small, yet strong.

Based on the story’s facts alone, our nation should not have survived the mighty oppressor. Yet once again, we not only survived but did so with great pride. This is our eternal story, the story of the Jewish people throughout history, and into the present—in Israel, Pittsburgh and worldwide.

Today I took part, along with my colleagues of the JCC Israel Center, in a first-of-its-kind march. We joined “Together—Marching with World Jewry,” winding our way through the streets of Jerusalem in support of Jewish communities worldwide in support of unity.

In the past year, the city of Jerusalem with its holy symbols, became a cause of concern to many Jews around the world, concerns that stained and darkened what Jerusalem really means. Today, together with thousands of Israelis from across the country, representing all walks of life and affiliations, we wiped that stain away, pushed out the dark and allowed Jerusalem’s gold to shine—to spread the light of unity, acceptance and strength. The light of Hanukkah.

Today’s march—led by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, along with dozens of Jewish and Zionist organizations—follows the Israeli government’s investment of considerable resources aimed at strengthening the ties of mutual responsibility and support that link the State of Israel and its citizens with the Jewish people, wherever they may live.

The parade, one of the largest and most impressive events ever held in Israel’s capital, will be in the spirit of the legendary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, with one of the producers being on hand to assist in setup.

The Temple’s menorah may not physically be spreading its great light over the city of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, today a great light has brightened our skies beyond the borders of our Jewish capital. It has crossed oceans and seas and has reached the Jewish people around the world, wherever they are. Sharing the light of unity.

Our Hanukkah flames may differ in colors, size and brightness. Some will dance and other will stand steady.

But the brightness of those combined flames across the Jewish world should remind us that although we may differ, we are, miraculously, still here. We will shine together through one eternal flame, a light unto the nations, and more importantly—to ourselves.

Happy Hanukkah!

October 2018

Stronger Than Hate

I consider the Jewish community of Pittsburgh home.

For three amazing years my family and I lived there. I was fortunate to serve as the community shlicha—emissary, at the local Jewish Federation. Pittsburgh is where our daughters went to one of the local Jewish day schools.

Pittsburgh welcomed us with open hearts, endless warmth, and embraced us as if we had always been members of this unbelievable Jewish community.

Wilkins Ave was our home address, a beautiful, quiet street, home of one of Pittsburgh’s great synagogues, Tree of Life.

Although so far from our home in Israel, it was incredibly reassuring to live facing this stately building, one that bore one of the most prominent Jewish phrases, Tree of Life, Eitz Chaim, in beautiful relief. It made us feel secure and surrounded by Jewish ambiance, among Jewish friends, part of a family. From time to time, we joined services at Tree of Life, always feeling that we belonged.

I remember the remarkable voice of the cantor leading our prayers, carving a beautiful path to the heavens where all chants and hopes dance together as one.

On Shabbat morning, these beautiful voices of joy and gratitude quickly turned to a shivering screaming, a deadly cry, a call for help, a moribund whisper.

I consider Jewish Pittsburgh as home, not only for the wonderful experience it offered, but for the transformational opportunity, it brought.

I learned who I am as a Jew in Pittsburgh. I discovered my mission in Pittsburgh. I fell in love with the Jewish world at large, and I became part of the long-lasting Jewish chain in Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, I was fortunate to meet Jewish leaders who literarily changed the world, turned it into a better place for Jews and those of other faiths alike because they truly cared—and because they could.

In Pittsburgh I experienced the power of unity, I witnessed it firsthand when all members of the Jewish community stood side by side when rallying for Israel, advocating for Jews in former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Argentina, raising money for Darfur and other causes. Rabbis and community leaders imparted a true sense of one community, of am echad, that we are all One People. Members from all synagogues, different streams and affiliations, some with no affiliation at all, left their personal differences aside and expressed the strength of a united Jewish community. This mighty community blew me away time after time, where shard goals overcame differences of opinions.

This past Shabbat Pittsburgh’s Jewish community strength and unity wrapped its loving arms around its hurting members as they mourned together as one. This contagious force of solidarity crossed the borders of the Allegany River, reaching Jewish communities around the world, and so obviously here, in Israel.

Cold desert-like winds brought sadness and sorrow. We are all hurting together, feeling the burning ache, crying for the loss of innocents.

A small group of Israeli delegates led by Minister for Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, and including members of the Israeli Disaster Victim Identification team and other experts in emotional trauma, joined the community in Pittsburgh for a vigil on Sunday afternoon.

Within a few hours, a large online campaign collected messages from across Israel, sending the Jewish community of Pittsburgh our love and support. Israel’s weekly government cabinet meeting began with a minute of silence to honor the 11 victims. Different Israeli institutions lowered our flags to half-staff for the week. People from around the world have reached out to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh offering to help, share their sorrow, and send condolences. This is the power of love and unity. The power of solidarity—the power of the entire Jewish people—a nation that has been through so much together.

The ugly face of hatred and its devastating power took 11 innocent people, all killed for being Jews, all killed by worshipping in a sanctuary, a place meant to be safe. As so many have done before, too many, they paid the ultimate price for carrying with pride their Jewish heritage.

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger. These 11 holy victims of a hate crime will forever be remembered and cherished for what they believed in, and for the lives they led.

Next Shabbat Jewish worshipers from across the world will join Pittsburgh synagogues to once again carve a path to heavens, cry and beg for these acts of hatred to stop, to disappear, to allow the great bright light of hope to shine, a beacon of love and acceptance.

My dear, dear friends in Pittsburgh, it is so hard being away from you this week. But I am not so far away. I am with you—as is the rest of the civil world. We all stand by you with great love and support, hand in hand, never letting go.

Leah Garber

Vice President | Director, JCC Israel Center

September 2018

Autumn breeze

Autumn’s wandering birds carry with them foreign scents, exotic fragrances, and a slight touch of mystery. One can only wonder what secrets hide under their wings, carried away like blowing leaves by autumn winds. Exaltation is in the air.

I love the High Holidays. I love the spirituality, the sense of connection, shared hopes, joint prayers, inner reflection and New Year’s resolutions. So many opportunities, if we only will it, try harder, work vigorously, we can turn them into reality.

It is incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by “Shanah Tova” greetings wherever I go, seeing my personal basket of best wishes for the New Year get filled, and then spreading around these wishes to others, sharing the dreams for a better year, a wonderful 5779.

Tomorrow night we stand to recite Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur’s opening prayer. I will be imagining how simultaneously, millions of Jews from all backgrounds and affiliations will be reciting the same exact words. Perhaps in different accents, most likely in many different tunes and melodies, but with similar desires at heart—shared purity entering the holy day, all facing Jerusalem.

This shared feeling of belonging, the powerful links between Jews across the globe, present and past, is our unique essence; it is what defines us as the “eternal people.”

Israel is a Jewish country with the vast majority of Israelis being secular (close to 70%). They live proudly as Israelis and a large percentage of them define their Jewishness by that designation alone—Israeli. These Israelis will not normally attend services at synagogues or follow other Jewish rituals. Being of Israeli identity is enough.

However on this holy day of Yom Kippur, as cantors across the Jewish world wrap themselves with while kittles, (a garment symbolizing purity), a spiritual white tablecloth wraps our entire Jewish state.  On this very day Israelis shed their usual cynicism, leave behind disputes and negativity, forget for 25 hours their criticism toward religious authorities, and bend their heads to fit under this white tablecloth. Then they become part of the magical power of the Day of Atonement, and feel Jewish like never before.

Traffic ceases. Highways turn into children’s playgrounds. Our busy airport is closed. There are no broadcasts on television and radio. An entire country is on hold. Everything is shut off for 25 hours, allowing a full and complete atmosphere of serenity to take over. What a feeling!

Around Israel, at parks, community centers and town squares, areas wide open to the public, services will take place.

During the two days of Rosh Hashanah, thousands joined in the “Shofar in the Park” program, where hundreds of parks across the country offered special Rosh Hashanah services, alternative ways to celebrate the New Year, by welcoming people to a different Jewish experience, one closer to their hearts.

Israeli community centers, our JCCs here, play a major role in being the Israeli “town square,” reaching out to all Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, offering them what for many was denied due to religious antagonism.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to live at different places; I have experienced Yom Kippur outside Israel. But there is nothing like the power of the collective in Israel, where the holy atmosphere is so condensed, so present, so alive.

This past year had its share of miseries and pain, when balloons and kites became a symbol of hatred and animosity, when once again we were so close, too close to another war in Gaza, where peace drew farther away.

Yet 5778 had a record numbers of visiting tourists from all over the world, celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary, rejoicing in this country’s vibrant culture. They surrounded themselves with 70 faces of creativity, beauty, success and knowledge, allowing Israel to be the start up nation it is, on so many levels.

May 5779 allow balloons and kites to be just that, symbols of joy that fly away with a smile.

May 5779 bring peace closer. May this New Year allow us to witness peace’s presence, and be blessed by its promises, together with our neighbors, and enjoy prosperity.

May 5779 offer our neighbor countries and all refugees, shelter and protection. And may 5779 showcase nature’s beauty and wonders, rather than the mighty forces of destruction and disaster.

And may the overwhelming idea that we are one people envelop us as we recite Kol Nidrei, stay with us throughout the year, allowing us to sing in different voices and melodies shared prayers.

Like the birds bringing mystery and whisper from afar, can we usher in hope on the delicate but sturdy wings that find their way here against the wind.


“אבינו מלכינו, שמע קולנו, חדש עלינו שנה טובה”

“Lord our God, Hear our voice, bless this year.”

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center

August 2018

In a few days, the Jewish world will mark the first day of the month of Elul, known as the month of mercy and forgiveness. It is the month leading us into the holiness and sanctity of the high holidays.

Through the month, many will blow the Shofar each morning—a reminder to transcend the mundane, to shed petty daily acts and concerns, to leave them all behind and rise above to an inner search, one that is a personal and collective reflection. One that will hopefully lead us to be better, both as individuals and as a people.

Israel, our homeland, the land of the Jewish people is the backbone of our collective being, and actually is doing not too bad.

Yes, the physical being is consistently threatened and challenged, but we have somehow fashioned a way to live and strive regardless of constant threats.

Our homeland’s mind is doing great, better than ever, with record numbers of world winning prizes and awards for great achievements. We are the startup nation on so many levels.

Israel’s heart has never beaten as powerfully as it beats now. We reach out to the world whenever there is a need, repairing it. We spread our light by example unto the nations, our brightest of lights.

However, our soul is hurting, suffering from severe symptoms of schizophrenia. Our multiple identities keep pulling us in different directions.

The month of Elul’s inner reflection was never as needed as it is now. Elul gives us an opportunity for figuring out who are we as a people, our identity, and where we are heading.

Last month the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a controversial law: “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This law is an important one. It aims to define the nature of the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

In principle, this law should be our beacon, lighting our way with pride, vision and clear purpose about why we founded this state, and what are our goals. This important basic law should be memorized by all, pledged by all as Americans pledge to the flag daily, with honor and respect.

Should have been our beacon, could have been our guiding light. However, sadly, a deeper look at this law reveals one of the most divisive laws the Knesset has ever passed.

Since the vote affirming it, the nation-state law has hijacked Israeli discourse here, and Jewish discourse around the world, leading to protests and demonstrations.

The law is controversial not for what it says, but for what it does not.

One of the sections referring to world Jewry—in my mind one of the most important parts—states that the “Jewish State will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to their Jewishness or their citizenship. To act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the State and members of the Jewish people, and to act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”

All that is good and fine, but I would look to see how these aspirations for Jewish peoplehood and mutual responsibility apply not only overseas, within the diaspora, but rather right here, in our collective homeland. How the Kotel, a piece of wall from the great Temple, built for us all—representing the aspiration of our unity—reflects the essence of Jewish peoplehood.

Strengthening the connections, the ties between the State of Israel and world Jewry are a basic value, core to our identity, yet it must be reflected throughout, within Israel, on this holy ground of the Jewish state, and beyond, in the diaspora. It must transcend our political, cultural and denominational divisions. It is our joint commitment to one another, demonstrated so many times before, for our sake of unity and stability. This is who we are.

Who we are is a people mature enough to celebrate that amazingly, we are still here. Our existence is miraculous, yet we must acknowledge and respect others among us.

But sadly, this law puts at risk the very delicate yet critical balance between the state’s Jewish character and its democratic one.

Israel’s commitment to “equality for all its citizens,” as stated in its Declaration of Independence, is the notion that all Israeli citizens, Jews, Arabs, Christians and others alike will be treated with equality, each having the same social and political rights. This foundation of our democratic state, the only one in the Middle East, complements Jewish values, adds contemporary meaning to our eternal ethics, and offers a modern-day application that fits in so beautifully with ancient, forever-relevant Jewish values. However, this very foundation of Israel as a democracy was not included in the new law.

On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion read from the Deceleration of Independence:  “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets;”

Ben Gurion knew how to weave our Jewish values and heritage into the task of leading a new state, thus assuring its foundation would be accepted by all, cherished and respected by all.

We already have a National Law; it is this very May 14, 1948 Deceleration of Independence. It lasted for 70 years and will last forever if we only learn to rise above miserable politics to the greatness we can.

I am a proud Zionist, passionately in love with our Jewish homeland, yet I cry for this new rip in our identity, so unnecessary, so harmful, and so weakening.

Yet at the same time, I do not believe this new law is an apartheid law—not at all. I refuse to fall into political traps, from right or left. Yes, I criticize major sections of this law, but I will not equate it as one fitting dark regimes long vanquished. To be balanced is to require fair judgment on all levels.

As the month of Elul will spread its spiritual presence, as the days get shorter and mighty winds blow summer’s dust away, as we begin to meditate on forgiveness, and as we awaken from past year’s dreams into reality, we should aspire to be worthy of our Jewish State and treat it with the respect it deserves, as our Hebrew prophets have taught us.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center



July 2018

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy“…

Israel’s steamy, sticky summer brings with it packed beaches, blue chilled water to escape to, families enjoying the breeze, while flying kites tangle in it high and above.

Kites, coming in all shapes and colors carry with them hopes and dreams, secret whispers and mysteries, all tossed by the wind. Naïve and cheerful, always optimistic, so light and fragile, tethered tenuously to the earth, while freely exploring beyond—they symbolizes so much.

But as in Israel, what is known as a toy, can be turned into an evil weapon.

Recent months have introduced the new phenomenon—Palestinians release incendiary kites and balloons over the Gaza border toward Israeli fields and villages, sometimes at a rate of several dozen each day.

These incendiary devices have sparked daily fires that have burned thousands of acres of farmland, parks, and forests. Encouraged by summer’s hot weather and desert-like winds, these flames have become a real threat carried out, not by what we call terrorists, but mostly by young kids and teenagers, rushed by terrorists to turn away from soccer fields and basketball courts to a new sport—flying weapons.

How sad it is to tell our children to stay away from any unknown kites, balloons, or drones they may find on the ground this summer. Yes, children, something you know as a toy, something to play with, can actually kill you. Stay away!

This past Friday my family and I drove toward the border of Gaza to join thousands of Israelis, families with young children, all flying hundreds of blue and white kites peacefully countering the vicious, flaming airborne devices.

It was miraculous. There we stood, in the midst of a hot Friday afternoon, hundreds of kites decorating the skies—skies too used to seeing the red of the flames and the speed of rockets, now embrace the calmness of peaceful kites. Standing side-by-side, we Israeli peace dreamers called for the violence to stop, and invited Palestinian children to return to their playfields, leaving behind wars and the battlefield’s ugliness to others.

As we were standing there, overlooking nearby Gaza, my daughter was thinking out loud—I bet children behind the boarder would love to join us here, fly beautiful kites just because it’s fun, nothing else.

This colorful fun rally was part of an ongoing campaign calling for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul held by Hamas since summer of 2014.

The drive back from the Gaza border was sad. We drove through blackened burned fields, knowing that this peaceful rally, along with all other efforts would not return Hadar and Oron home. It was another slap of reality.

But summer won’t give in to cruelty, and Israelis along with the hundreds of thousands tourists from across the world continue to fill our beaches from north to south, surrendering to Israel’s sun and warmth. Among them are some 150 teens, representing five JCC camps here in Israel for a full month as part of their CIT program. Pinemere, Interlaken, Wise, Livingston and EKC.

I had the pleasure to recite the blessing of Shehecheyanu with these teens this morning as they were ascending to Jerusalem after an early sunrise climb up Masada. There we were, on top of Mount Scopus, overlooking the beauty of Jerusalem, a spectacular mosaic of new and ancient, where synagogues and mosques have dared to stand together for centuries, neighbored by churches and monasteries. These holy sites accept the presence of one another, why can’t we?

It has to mean something when teens from Jewish communities take four weeks of their lives to spend a summer in Israel. They touch the ground, inhale the air, sense the atmosphere and feel connected—part of one long chain of the Jewish people.

On Friday afternoon, after washing away the heat and dust, I stood by my Shabbat candles and thought of Leah Goldin, mother of Hadar Goldin. Leah was probably whispering her weekly prayer to see her son Hadar buried in Israel, in dignity and respect. I was whispering my prayer too.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


June 2018

Playing the game

The power of sport extends beyond it's immediate, most obvious advantages. Yes, it is healthy; sure, it is good for our mind, our soul. No doubt, it is fun, but above all, sport’s biggest contribution to humankind is bringing people together.

Since the ancient days of Sparta, through the Olympics Games and other international competitions, the sport has the ability to connect. Athletes and sports lovers from all countries, all backgrounds and cultures join together, sharing mutual passions and celebrating life. They put away cultural, political and religious differences. In so many ways stadiums, running tracks, fields and courts should be seen as sacred venues and treated as such. In today’s world, they are probably the only place people are blind to the differences of race, religion, and nationality.

However, when it comes to Israel, we once again take a hit. Fairness and sanity have lost presence, and hypocrisy and hatred long ago took over.

Last week Israeli soccer fans awoke to a great disappointment. Argentina’s national soccer team announced it was canceling a friendly match against Israel’s national team. The official reason for the cancellation was that the players had faced serious threats, forcing organizers to eliminate the match.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, four-year-old Daniel Tergerman was killed while playing in his home with his favorite toy when a rocket shot from Gaza bombed his home. Little Daniel was wearing Lionel Messi’s jersey in all the photos we saw of him online. Today Daniel would be eight and extremely disappointed that his soccer hero surrendered to the hatred that killed him.

For Palestinians and their supporters, Argentina’s decision to withdraw from the game was seen as the biggest victory yet for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. They praised the Argentine team for taking a stand against Israel and its often-lethal treatment of the Palestinians.

It does not matter that Israel and Argentina have enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations, economic partnerships and cultural exchanges for many years. Terror, by its immediate definition to terrify people has once again raised its ugly head. The monster has spoken, as it always does, in its brutal and cruel words, preventing an innocent, friendly soccer game from taking place, on friendly grounds, in front of friendly fans.

On the same week the Argentinian team decided to abandon Israel, Tel Aviv dressed up in festivity, showing off its beauty with all rainbow colors in honor the 20th Gay Pride Parade—the largest ever. Tel Aviv, known as one of the world’s most gay-friendly travel destinations, hosted over 250,000 people, including 30,000 foreign tourists, Jews and non-Jews from around the globe.

Apparently, not all travelers were bitten by the hatred monster. Many of these 30,000 tourists celebrating in Tel Aviv, along with the hundreds of thousands of other tourists from far-flung nations, have filled and will fill the streets of Israel in this year of record numbers in tourism. Their great smiling, suntanned faces, enjoying our country’s wonders and beauty tells a different story.

It is not always easy to see beneath the headline, in between the black lines of threats and intimidation. How unfortunate that the Argentinian soccer team was not able to do so, and how beautiful that the rest of the tourists flooding our cities, can.

While the Argentinian soccer team chose to surrender to terror’s threats, their neighbors in Brazil chose to listen to a different tune. Two million Brazilians cheered for Israel during an annual Christian march in Brazil. Evangelical Christians waved Israeli flags and prayed for the Jewish state.

In New York, tens of thousands of Israel supporters took part in this year’s annual “Celebrate Israel” parade, displaying Israeli innovation and ingenuity.

All kinds of winds blow around us. They carry with them the distinct sounds from their far-off lands. Our air is thick with many voices, multiple tunes. We are valued by the melody we choose to listen to, the songs we sing, and carry on.  We each have choices; the people of the world have choices. Surrendering to terror and seeing Israel through biased eyes is one way to go, certainly not the way the world of sports should go.

May we be blessed with winds that bring serenity and peace, and a level playing field, where we hear voices of friendship and love.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


April 2018

Pride is in the air!

“As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And forward to the east
To Zion, an eye looks.
Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem

Driving around Israel these past few days offers an emotional experience, almost spiritual. All streets are decorated for festivity—blue and white flags hang from each home and building, huge banners announce celebrations and carnivals, all in honor of Israel’s 70thanniversary.

There is an ancient rabbinic teaching that the Torah has 70 faces. The sages could easily have been speaking about contemporary Israel. Each of Israel’s faces reveals a fascinating country, enriched by an ongoing flow of energy, creativity and excitement. Much of what is happing is a direct result of necessity. A harsh reality forces us to be the start up nation. The ability to harness our hardness and turn it into a positive force, rather than use it as an excuse for backwardness is unique to Israel, something born of a people who have been struggling throughout their existence yet always seem to overcome each and every challenge, leaving them stronger in so many ways.

Growing up in Israel gives me the advantage of an intimate familiarity with this country and its people. I worked in different cities, moved around for school, toured and traveled along its length and breadth, hiked all its trails, touched every stone, inhaled its air—on days when it was thick with gunfire and hatred, and on days when it was light and fresh, filled with possibility.

I am blessed to be surrounded by the souls who make up this country. The people of Israel, my people. Native-born Israelis coexist side by side with newcomers from 100 different countries—Jews sharing one hope, the same desire to build a land, to create a home.

With the risk of sounding trite, on this holy day of Israel’s 70th anniversary, I will allow myself a moment to be effusive and sentimental. I am deeply in love with this country. I love it for all its wonders and blessings, for its beauty and richness, for its past and present, for its values and diversity, for being my home, for being our Jewish homeland.

On this sacred day of Yom Haatzmaut I shed the typical cynicism we Israelis are known for; I invite you all to join me in seeing our homeland through fresh eyes, newly opened. Not as a fantasy Jewish Disneyland failing to stand up to romantic unrealistic expectations, not as an experiential Jewish utopia, but as a real land that for 70 years has reveled in its 70 faces, which crown her with a glory and splendor it so well deserves.

Challenges exist; is there a place where they do not? However, these are our challenges, we own them, and we will overcome them—together. These challenges keep motivating us to better our home, aspire us to work harder, invest more, care more, dream bigger, together. Not for a second do these challenges take away anything from our connection, from this special bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. On the contrary, they should strengthen the ties, the shared responsibility, and the sense of belonging.

Nothing of this would be possible without the painful sacrifice of 23,646 men and women who have given their lives in battle while protecting our home and 3134 Israelis perished in terror attacks while living out their daily lives. As the siren cried yesterday on Memorial Day, ripping across Israel’s skies, white clouds of mercy and compassion carried our gratitude and appreciation onto the forever-young men and women we owe so much to.

Today our JCCs, from west to east, north to south celebrate Israel’s independence through festivals and parades, concerts and feasts, ceremonies and Israel trips, a miraculous testimony to the bond with the State of Israel.

Imagine the sounds and lights carried throughout North America by hundreds of thousands JCC members cheering for Israel, waving blue and white flags in what eventually will be an endless call of unity and pride joined by millions of Jews worldwide as they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary.

Last night I had the honor of attending the nation’s main Yom Haatzamut ceremony at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. As my soldier daughter marched with hundreds of Israeli soldiers, taking an oath to honor, respect and protect our Jewish state, I felt great privilege to be part of our nation, to belong to the Jewish people, to stand across Herzl’s grave and sing Hatikva, our anthem, along with thousands of Israelis, my heart filled with gratitude and joy.

Pride is in the air, and it is the air we all inhale today!

“Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem”—Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem

Chag sameach, Yisrael; happy holiday Israel!

See here a special Yom HaAtzmaut Koololam, an organization that brings together Israelis from across all ages, races, religions, and demographics for mass singing, put together this exemplary project in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


February 2018

Tikkun Olam

I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.” —Abraham Lincoln

On a sunny but chilly morning a few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a Houstonian taxi driver who drove me across town from one of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods towards the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC.

The taxi picked me up from what has been for more than 60 years the home of Miss Johnnie Gibson. Since Hurricane Harvey swept through in August, this has been a deserted, ruined house, left behind, torn and bare, silently telling the story of Hurricane Harvey’s devastating forces.

Jimmy, the taxi driver, asked me what was I doing there with a group of 20 others, all busy looking like diligent ants set to take over a project. I shared with Jimmy that I was accompanying a group from JCC Association’s board of directors, who had traveled from across North America to meet in Houston. They had agreed to meet in Houston as part of the board’s annual meeting so they could take a day to volunteer, help those in need, repair the world.

I also told Jimmy that I was on my way to the JCC to meet a group of 22 JCCs’ shlichim (Israeli emissaries) and their supervisors from 11 JCCs from the United States and Canada, all convening in Houston, and like our board members, devoting a day to volunteer to rebuild Miss Johnnie Gibson’s home, so that after six months she can finally find serenity surrounded by her own walls.

Jimmy couldn’t believe what he had just heard. A group of Jews from across North America joined by a group of Israelis, all in Houston to volunteer in a low-income neighborhood, where a modest church oversees the block and reflects the faith of its residents.

I realized from Jimmy’s surprised expression that what seemed like an incredibly honorable and noble act of kindness to a random taxi driver, was actually the obvious thing to do to us.

It was that moment, on a jammed highway in Houston, that Jimmy turned on the lightbulb hanging above my head and filled it with bright light, honor and pride. Pride in being part of an organization whose extremely committed board members put everything aside and join together to repair Miss Johnnie Gibson’s home, while the rest of our board was busy at a local foodbank preparing the following day’s meals for more than 3,000 school-age children.

This was the second time JCC Association’s board has elected to lend a hand.  In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, where 80 percent of the city of New Orleans flooded, the board also chose social action to help repair a devastated city.

Houston is still scarred. It will take many more days and many more volunteers to fully repair all the flooded homes and buildings.

One of these buildings is the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC. Although tremendously damaged, the JCC didn’t let Harvey stop it—not even for a day—from continuing to serve the community through its “Meals on Wheels” program and other services. The JCC building is almost fully rebuilt, its warm welcoming lobby, not too long ago completely flooded, invites all community members to enjoy its programs and services, but more than anything to be part of family.

As an Israeli used to being grateful for aid coming to Israel from people living beyond its borders, Jews and non-Jews worldwide, this day in Houston was especially rewarding.

Knowing that my Israeli government, through my tax money contributed $1 million to Houston’s efforts to rebuild the city was a moment of pride. Lending a hand to those in need, whether they were Jews or members of other faith communities guides us through this journey we are all part of.

Today, many in the U.S. remember Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president. Lincoln led the country through its most turbulent period, one of civil war, toward becoming a nation of human beings—humble, compassionate, equal and caring. People who “assist in ameliorating mankind.

That long day in Houston of cleaning away debris, removing damaged siding, painting new siding and nailing it in place was a sacred day. We may have seemed dusty but we actually shined. This day was one of the most meaningful days in my life, a day I was so proud to be associated with JCC Association, led by a committed board of directors for whom tikkun olam (repairing the world) and community building are not just phrases, but what truly guides its daily actions.

You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center



January 2018

One hundred and sixty years ago today, one of the great modern day innovators was born, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language.

Ben Yehuda dedicated his life to renewing an extinct langue that up to that moment belonged to prayer books and Jewish texts only. He fought shatterd barriers, broke conventions and led a movement of believers, so that our Hebrew nation would have one living language to define us. Ben Yehuda was a visionary, an innovator and a man of dreams who shaped and formed our modern Zionist identity.

During his lifetime, Ben Yehuda met with resistance. There were those who balked at using the holy language of Hebrew for the coarse communications of daily life. To them, this was a divine tongue, and to speak it so would be a desecration. But Ben Yehuda found unanimous acceptance from the next generation, one that could see a new state was on its way, and would need its own language to help forge its identity.

One who followed was Aharon Appelfeld, a prolific author of dozens of books and novels. Appelfeld passed away last Thursday at the age of 85.

Born in the former kingdom of Romania in 1932, Appelfeld survived the Holocaust before eventually settling in Israel. His published works were almost entirely centered on his experiences in the war, the first years of the burgeoning state of Israel and the Holocaust.

A laureate of the prestigious Israel Prize for literature in 1983, Appelfeld was no stranger to other recognition—winning many other Israeli and international prizes. He established his reputation as a literary giant before completing a grand total of 47 published books, all of which earned him his place in the world of Israeli literature as a pioneer of the modern Hebrew language.

And he is one of my favorite authors.

I have read many of his books, all of which stand on my bookshelves, bowing in respect to their creator—the magician of words, master of language, and a wizard in joining the beauty of our ancient Hebrew with Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s revived language, all into one masterpiece.

I grew up not too far from Jerusalem’s famous Ben Yehuda Street, raised with a great appreciation for words, their sanctity, power and impact. Surrounded by thousands of books, my childhood was one in which the written word held a place of honor.

If possible from high above, from his place of rest, Eliezer Ben Yehuda would be shocked to see the shops and signs along the streets carrying his name in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv today. We are selling Israeli goods, Judaica items and the country’s best cuisine under foreign names, attempting to offer an international aroma.

Thankfully, our identity doesn’t lie in the hands of shop windows and signs but rather in the richness of our culture, texts, arts and traditions.

With a growing number of Israeli authors joining the pantheon of Hebrew literary lights every year, we carry with pride the title most books published annually per capita.

Ben Yehuda Street may offer a mirror of foreign influences and attempts at international flavor, but Ben Yehuda’s words offer something more. They salute their redeemer with awe. He was able to pull our language off the dusty shelf of antiquity, and turn it once again into spoken currency, today showcasing the best of Hebrew culture, and the greatest tribute to Ben Yehuda’s vision.


Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center



December 2017

Jerusalem of Gold

On my drive to Jerusalem this sunny morning following a stormy night, Israel’s capital revealed itself, shining and glowing, as if our beloved city isn’t sure whether to celebrate or to shy away from all the fuss it has just created. And yet the streets were decorated with Israeli and American flags, waving together with festivity, almost whispering this is a day to remember. Glow Jerusalem, you earned it.


Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs
                    —Naomi Shemer, 1967


Sixty-eight years ago, on Dec. 5, 1949, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister announced that, “Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the state of Israel.

And now, Dec. 6, 2017 will be remembered as a historical day where President Donald Trump announced that the United States officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” 

Yesterday’s declaration follows the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act stating the U.S. is required to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by a set deadline; however, that act conceded that the move could be put off for six months at a time as long as the president, “determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

The Jewish world relates to Jerusalem as its capital with humility and pride.  We lean over old sacred stones that have seen pain and suffering, struggle and crying for the past 3,000 years. We pray facing Jerusalem three times a day, chanting ancient prayers for peace and justice.

And yet, many throughout the Jewish world and beyond raise great concerns regarding this recent declaration. They question its timing and consequences. Timing and consequences have dictated the status quo for the past 20 years, and why no American president has actually fulfilled the 1995 act.

Yes, it’s all about timing. In our rough Middle East neighborhood, it’s not all about doing the right thing, but rather the wisest thing. Words have power, they can inflame, and they can increase anger, and lead to even greater violence. But does our sacred region really need an incentive to fire up? Do our Palestinian neighbors need new motivations to escalate? Or are these merely poor excuses? Can’t a sovereign state, one that has existed for the past 70 years, take pride in its capital and celebrate it? Should legitimate declarations and acts be held hostage to terror, allowing it to lead the agenda, to takeover? Did terror in Jerusalem cease in the past two decades due to the 1995 Act being “on hold”?

I leave you with these questions, all legitimate concerns. Concerns we live with on a daily basis, yearning for the day they will no longer determine our reality.

And what can be more significant, a true reflection of what we are so longing for than the “Good Neighboring” Festival taking place today in Jerusalem’s First Station, where Jewish and Arab musical ensembles will sing and dance together, celebrate what Jerusalem should and can be, what Jerusalem is to all of us that believe in peace.

For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold…
          —Naomi Shemer, 1967

Leah Garber,
Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center


November 2017

Kaf-Tet B’November (29 November)

Today the Jewish world marks one of the great moments in our modern history – the adoption of United Nations Resolution 181 recommending the end of the British Mandate and the formation of a Jewish state.

The resolution also recommended setting up a separate Arab nation with special international regime for the city of Jerusalem.

Spontaneous joyful dancing circles filled the streets of then-Palestine. The new Jewish State – 70 years ago on Nov. 29 – was on its way! It would grant an international legitimacy for Jewish refugees to immigrate to the land of Israel – the land we have longed for and dreamed of – in an attempt to find a safe haven.

This plan is since known as the Partition Plan for Palestine. After 2,000 years of yearning, the Jewish people received recognition of our birthright. In one great moment, we were granted the right to establish Jewish sovereignty, in a Jewish state, governed by the Jewish people.

The plan, with its objectives to encourage political division and economic unity between the two nations, was accepted by the majority of the Jewish community, despite its perceived limitations. Arab leaders and governments rejected it and indicated an unwillingness to accept any form of territorial division – a rejection that led to the War of Independence.

The partition plan was not implemented and that first refusal to negotiate and compromise has ever since characterized the Arab’s world attitude toward Israel.

The War of Independence, modern-day Israel’s first war, marked the beginning of a bloody chain of conflicts, operations and terror attacks, all characterizing our collective identity as a nation under constant threat, always fighting for its existence – an identity molded by violence and hatred for some, but to us, to the Jewish world at large, and to most Western countries, an identity shaped by bravery, determination and an everlasting striving to overcome obstacles, willingly paying the ultimate price and when possible, reaching out to neighbor countries, as we did 70 years ago, settling for less land with the hope it will assure peace.

One historical price Israel has paid was relinquishing the entire Sinai desert to Egypt as part of the peace treaty with our biggest enemy. The Sinai desert is three times bigger than the entire land of Israel. Led by the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel gave up this land not lightly, but with a painful understanding that in order to reach peace, we must sacrifice, human beings are worth more than land, as big as it may be.

It all began exactly 40 years ago. I remember that day as if it was yesterday.

I was a young girl, growing up in a country overwhelmed by constant violence and threats, mostly from Egypt, our mighty southern neighbor. Since the days of the Pharaohs, Egypt symbolized aggression and a continuous desire to oppress the Israelites from the days of the Torah, to modern times. Egypt was not only the largest and most populous Arab state, but also the one spearheading repeated pan-Arab attempts to destroy Israel.

And then in November 1977, Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president, Israel’s ultimate enemy, stunned the world by visiting Jerusalem and breaking the psychological barrier produced by three decades of war and belligerence. Anwar Sadat landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport for a two-day visit to Jerusalem, at the official invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Sadat will forever be remembered for his courageous act of visiting the contested capital of the Arab world’s foremost nemesis in an apparent acquiescence to the legitimacy of the Jewish state’s existence and its right to peaceful coexistence with its Arab neighbors.

We all held our breath. I can still hear the silence hovering over the empty streets, touch the holy air of messianic prophecy, and feel the great excitement of redemption wrapping us all with hope. Our prayers were finally heard, our wishes coming true. The desired peace is no longer a dream. It’s here, so close, carried on the wing of Sadat’s presidential airplane, all the way from Egypt’s dusty deserts.

This was the atmosphere throughout the streets of Jerusalem. We were all glued to our TV screens, rubbing our eyes as they followed the historical speech from our Knesset, the Israeli parliament, when the Egyptian leader declared: “No more war, no more bloodshed”.

Today, four decades later, most Israelis view the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty as essential to Israel’s national security. It’s not a love affair, not a warm friendly relationship. Relations between the two peoples have not developed at all and any connection that isn’t security or diplomacy related does not exist. Economic ties are very limited, and there are no cultural, scientific or sports relations. In school textbooks Israel does not appear on the map and a special permit is needed from security authorities to travel to Israel. But any cold limited relationship is better than none. The peace agreement has stood, solid. Despite opposition in Egypt, since the treaty was signed Egypt has never joined any military attack against Israel.

These days, security and governmental ties are unprecedentedly close as both countries view Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a mutual threat. And both Egypt and Israel are keen to counter Iranian influence in the region and see the Islamic State’s insurgency in Sinai routed.

Unfortunately, this past weekend the joint Israeli-Egyptian efforts to fight the Islamic State demonstrated why this alliance is so vital to our security. At least 305 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in a Sufi mosque in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt in the most vicious way. The attackers weren’t content to set a bomb; as people fled the mosque, Islamic State terrorists sprayed the victims with bullets. Among the victims were many children, all innocent worshipers in the middle of a sacred act of prayer, a ritual so well known to their murders. This cruel act of hatred ranks as Egypt’s deadliest terrorist attack in modern history.

Forty years later, the messianic prophecies of peace are still longed for and redemption was not to be a part for Sadat to carry on.  Our prayers are still waiting to be answered. Despite time and reality, peace is still our dream and we will never lose hope.

From 1947’s Partition Plan, through Sadat’s 1977 historical visit to Jerusalem, our chronicles reveal the story of a nation yearning to exist despite harsh realities, always willing to compromise, never losing hope.

I can only pray that the jubilee of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem will also mark the 10th anniversary of the new Middle East, one that with its open borders reveals trust, respect and a shared will to live peacefully. Or in Herzl’s words: “If you will it, it is no dream”.


October 2017

Mother Nature’s playground by 

Fall is in the air. A season of uncertainty. Unpredictable weather toys with summer’s swan song and winter’s hesitance to obscure our skies. Cold winds blow a mixture of leaves from where they lie on the ground like a wild, confused paint palette.

During the summer of 2017, the world witnessed an overwhelming number of weather-related natural disasters. These extreme floods, storms, mudslides and landslides caused deaths, mass destruction, displacement and permanent damage to buildings, agriculture and water infrastructure.

Climate is Mother Nature’s playground. A tumultuous playground, showcasing her powers and offering very little mercy.

Between wide-spread monsoons, flooding in South Asia, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean Islands and Southern Florida, Mexico’s earthquakes, California’s wildfires and most recently Europe’s Hurricane Ophelia, it seems as if nature is revolting against humans—those doubting global warming and those taking our world for granted, neglecting to appreciate its fragile existence.

And as if Mother Nature needed backup, humans were only too willing to lend a hand. Vicious acts of crime and terror scarred Las Vegas’s lively strip, and Barcelona’s most famous market, disrupted concerts and streets in the United Kingdom, and wreaked havoc and hatred worldwide.

All of a sudden, and for reasons we haven’t wished for, our small Israel seems to be the safest place on earth. Following the world shaking from a distance makes us appreciate our stability.

As in past disasters, Israel isn’t only sighing with sympathy. We have been ready for action—through both government aid and privately through different initiatives, reaching out to help.

One of these non-profit, non-governmental initiatives is IsraAID. For 15 years, IsraAID has been helping people all over the world overcome extreme crises and has provided millions with the vital support needed to move from destruction to reconstruction, and eventually, to sustainable living. These people in need include victims of the horrors in Syria, a country hostile to Israel, with growing numbers of innocent refugees fleeing the country, escaping death.

In Houston, the IsraAID team of psychosocial professionals provided urgent psychological and emotional support to individuals and families in shelters. Specialist and volunteers cleaned, evacuated and salvaged furniture from homes affected by the flooding. Local volunteers joined IsraAID, including Yazidi refugees that not long ago fled Islamist militants in Iraq, now living in the Meyerland area of Houston.

One of IsraAID’s emergency response teams in Houston arrived at the house of Mike, who is disabled, and unfortunately, was not insured against flood damage. He built his home 40 years ago, and raised his four children there. Sadly, Mike’s second wife passed away just a month before Hurricane Harvey hit. On the first morning of the cleanup, Mike told the team how grateful he was for their help, and for coming to assist him all the way from Israel…especially on his 68th birthday! On hearing this news, the team decided to help mark his special day. They managed to organize a gift, and at the end of the day, following considerable cleanup progress on the house, sang a loud, collective rendition of “Happy Birthday” in English and Hebrew! Mike was speechless; through his tears he shared how moved he was to be able to celebrate after such traumatic events in his life.

In Mexico, IsraAID’s emergency response teams provided rapid, essential aid on the ground, such as medical care, psychosocial support, search and rescue services, distributed of essential everyday items and water hygiene solutions.

This coming January, JCC Association of North America’s board members, alongside JCC shlichim (Israeli emissaries), and their supervisors will join the Houston JCC for a day of J-Cares where we will all roll up our sleeves and join IsraAID and other local volunteer initiatives in restoring the hurting community of Houston.

Tikkun olam—repairing the world—defines us. It illuminates our souls and is the purpose of our existence. It is our might. When Mother Nature’s forces meet human strength, they are no match. Eventually we overcome disasters with compassion, care and mutual responsibility.


Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center



September 2017

Days of Awe BY Leah Garber, Israel

The last days of Israel’s hot and steamy summer finally shorten. The air with cooler winds, heralding the longed for fall.

Wandering birds fly high above, escaping Europe’s oncoming winter, looking for warmth and serenity. We are surrounded by the Days of Awe, days of self-reflection and examination, days of hope. Hopes to be blessed with a better year, to leave the miseries and pain of 5777 behind.

Human evil, natural disasters and unfortunate political acts this past year all had their moment. They provided their share of desolateness, locally and worldwide.

In order to be worthy of grace, entitled of a better new year, and in the spirit of the High Holidays and the Days of Awe, we must try to learn the lesson from painful events and find optimism for a better future.

This past June the Israeli government voted to freeze the implementation of constructing an egalitarian section at the Western Wall to serve the needs of all Jewish streams and denominations, liberal and more Orthodox, as one.

This unfortunate decision rocked the Jewish world, leading to endless articles, speeches and other acts of protest, all sharing a great frustration and concern that the divide between Israel and the Jewish world is growing and deepening.

And yet, more than anything, the Kotel—the holiest place for Jews, ALL Jews—is a source of pride, a galvanizing force, a reflection of our shared past, present and future. These eternal stones reflect our common future and give me hope—that this hurtful, unnecessary crisis carries within it an old promise, an ancient commitment to build the Jewish state, the homeland of all Jews, together.

I choose to see in the Israeli government’s terrible decision as an opportunity. As the Jewish world prepares to celebrate Israel’s 70thanniversary—with great pride in the joint efforts to establish, build and maintain our home—these kinds of cultural, theological and identity crises should be seen as an opportunity.

From the time Israel was established, through the years when we were threatened by the Arab world, when our existence was at risk, the entire Jewish world stood by Israel’s side, hand-in-hand, supporting it by all means, jointly building this amazing nation.

And now, thanks to these ongoing efforts, our Jewish home is solid, a source of pride. But our work hasn’t ended. The last few bricks of pluralism, identity, tolerance and acceptance still need to be placed. These essential building blocks are made of discussions, honest conversations, some fruitful respectful arguments, all in the sake of heaven, to find our common spiritual grounds and allow them to glue the divides and hold our home, to be complete.

It is no easy task. It will take acts of protest, endless articles, and speeches to get the point across, but it’s a shared task. So this miserable decision of the Israeli government invites us to role our sleeves and work together as one, hand in hand, side by side to complete the holiest mission of all, build our Jewish home

And just before 5777 joins the books of history, Mother Nature steps in with all her mighty powers, forcing us again to acknowledge our limits, and recognize that we are just that, human, bound by human strength—and frailty. It’s a great lesson in modesty, humbleness. But being human is actually not limited at all. Our technology may be limited, restricted to science and facts, but our hearts and souls have no borders.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have caused devastating damage, taken lives, washed away homes and left millions without power for days, but it once again allowed human kindness and mercy to light the darkness of the stormy skies.

It was devastating to see images and videos of the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, just a few weeks ago a state of the art facility with outstanding programs and services, flooded with debris, ruined. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time uplifting. For the JCC, even though severely damaged, was there for its community. We watched  volunteers coordinate their Meals on Wheels services to those in need, providing food, supplies and most of all, care and sympathy. It is a great demonstration of the unlimited capacity of human beings to care.

The Jewish world stands by Houston, as it has by others in all past times of crisis. JCC Association helped coordinate an eGift card fundraiser and our communities launched fundraising campaigns, sent aid and support, hosted and prayed for the well-being of all Houstonians.

The state of Israel raised $1 million and sent a few support delegations to the storm ravaged community, returning to Houston the support it—and other Jewish communities—have granted to us so many times before.

It’s clear, 5777 wasn’t the best of years, but perhaps was one with lessons, opportunities that arose from crises, and allowed us to take pride in our capacity to overcome challenges of all sorts.

May wandering birds find serenity, may we all find serenity. May 5778 be blessed and may peace, spiritual, physical and emotional peace come upon us and the entire world. Amen.

“Lord our God, hear our voice, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept—with compassion and favor our prayer.  Lord our God, bless this year.”

“אבינו מלכינו, שמע קולנו, חדש עלינו שנה טובה”

Shana tovah



By Leah Garber - June 28, 2017

On Sunday, the Israeli government demonstrated the true meaning of politics by doing not necessarily what is right, or even what it believes in, but rather, took a long hard look at polls and did a calculated assessment of what would best ensure votes for the next elections.

The government voted to freeze the implementation of a proposal submitted in 2016 to construct an egalitarian section at the Western Wall to serve the needs of all Jewish streams and denominations, liberal and more Orthodox as one. In addition, the government accepted the Conversion Bill, which allows the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate to retain exclusive control over all conversion matters.

More than anything, the Kotel—the holiest place for Jews, ALL Jews—should be a source of pride for them. It is the one place where everyone feels welcome and a part of these stones past, present and future. These two miserable votes turn the Kotel from a wall symbolizing unity, to a separation wall.

Israel should be the galvanizing force for the Jewish people, wherever they are at, no matter how they identify. Jews across the Jewish world pray three times a day facing Jerusalem— they pray for rain based on the seasons in Israel, and pray for the well-being of the Jewish state every Shabbat. We all call Israel our Jewish homeland. We all pray with concern or cry with joy when we rally for Israel at times of crises, or to celebrate its enormous achievements.

Earlier today I attended a talk by my favorite speaker, Avraham Infeld, where he addressed one of our JCC Israel Center teen groups. These 80 participants are from Orange County in California, Mexico and Israel and are taking part in their JCC Global Amitim program. Avraham talked about the meaning of being part of the Jewish family. He explained that we are so divided today because we each interpret differently the threats and opportunities that progress and modernity offer.

Infeld advocates for diversity and pluralism; he doesn’t believe we can nor should we be uniform. With his great voice, he calls for unity—a unity that embraces diversity with all its facets.

Next week, thousands of Jews from more than 80 countries will attend the largest Jewish gathering in the world, and will march with pride at the 20th Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem. These great athletes represent the beauty of Jewish world today, complex and as varied as the hues of the rainbow.

All Maccabiah athletes, along with thousands of spectators and supports, will sing Israel’s anthem, Hatikvah—that is, The Hope—with great pride. They will wave blue and white flags and more than ever, feel connected to the Jewish people, to the Jewish homeland. No political vote will take away from this great moment of Jewish pride and unity, here in Jerusalem, Israel, the homeland of Jews, all Jews.

 Leah Garber



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


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



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!



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.”




“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



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




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


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! 


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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