Izzy on Bus
Caring for those in need in Israel comes natural; it’s what Jews have a passion and responsibility to do. When we came to Israel on Monday, it was important to not only plan endless program visits to initiatives focusing on self-sustaining and caring for the most vulnerable, which you’ll see have enlightened our perspective, but also to see the immense success of Israel on another side of the coin.
Omek, an interactive and innovative start-up in Israel in 2007, tells that story beautifully. Omek is one of many start-ups in Israel each year. According to “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, at the start of 2009, some 63 Israeli companies were listed on the NASDAQ, more than those of any other foreign country. The tiny country has more scientists, engineers, and start-ups, per capita, than any other nation in the world. Numerous Israeli firms have been acquired by leading multinationals including Google, IBM, and HP.
Omek is providing tools and technology that enable manufacturers and software developers to add gesture recognition and body tracking capabilities to their products. So, the best example is the Microsoft Xbox Kinnect. I found it interesting that while this isn’t Omek’s technology and Microsoft is clearly a competitor, this simple education of a new technology and the efforts towards having a universal gesture language is more helpful to Omek than not having Microsoft in the marketplace. Omek was able to find in the early stages that consumers enjoyed the gesture recognition experience with the Xbox Kinnect. Many innovative organizations with ideas starting as only conceptual will go years working on a new technology, only to find that consumers don’t like the experience once it’s ready to demo.
Not only does Omek stand as an example of Israeli innovation, but the organization is also a rare (and personally proud) example in which the co-founder and CEO is a woman. This becomes especially interesting because Omek is headquartered in Bet Shemesh, where recently there have been equality issues with women. When I asked Janine Kutliroff why she started the organization in Israel when she’s actually from the US, she talked about her love for the country, especially for raising children. I was expecting to hear that there were some financial incentives or other business-focused reasons, especially since there are so many Israeli start-ups, but I was humbled and intrigued to learn that it was purely a deep love for life in Israel. Janine spoke of a time when her husband and kids went to the park in Tsfat and returned with lollipops. Her first instinct was to say, “Didn’t I ever teach you to not talk to strangers?” but she immediately recognized that, in Israel, it’s different… and in a beautiful way.
The intelligence and the people coming out of Israel are one thing; the beautiful lives that are built in Israel are even more incredible and heart-warming. The results are innovative startups building Israel’s economy and innovative solutions and collaborations to provide self-sustaining opportunities to the most vulnerable and shift the historical culture of Israel. These make me proud to be a part of the Jewish Federations of North America, in which we are truly making a difference in people’s lives and for both an impressive and humbling country.
~ Simcha Elbaz Kackley, Jewish Federation of Cincinnati
On my way to Kiev, I wasn’t sure how it was going to compare to my first experience in Israel. But after the first day, it is every bit as moving and powerful as visiting the homeland. When you think of Eastern Europe, you cannot help but think of the Holocaust and elderly Jews. One of the most powerful parts of this trip was participating in a memorial ceremony at Babi Yar, which is the sight were 100,000 Jews were murdered in 1941 during the Holocaust. It is a place that was not openly acknowledged in the past - the memorial inscription mentions the loss of 100,000 lives in Kiev, but didn’t mention that it was Jewish lives. Standing at Babi Yar is an image that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
We were then able to visit with Tatiana, who was born at the end of the war and is now surviving with the support of the Hesed welfare case worker and in-home care. She is lonely and ailing. She has had a broken hip for an entire year that cannot be repaired until the rest of her body heals, which it is not able to do. So she is home bound, but does not even have a working toilet that she can use in her home. We went grocery shopping for her to provide her with a few extras that she cannot afford on her pension. Meeting Tatiana and seeing her need embodies the most basic and essential reasons for our fundraising. She will be in all of my thoughts when I return to DC and help push our campaign forward. She has truly inspired me in every way.
~ Treva Bustow, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
Yeshayahu and Natasha Yisraeli live on their own on the 6th floor of a “supportive community” building in the north of Jerusalem. Their “angel,” Vladimir, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to fix the plumbing, change a light bulb or perform any other basic maintenance needed. With the press of a button, an emergency responder is on the line, asking if they’re all right. When an ambulance is required, it will cost only 20 sheckels, not 400.
In his 80s, Yeshayahu survived the Holocaust and served in five Israeli wars after making aliyah from the Ukraine in 1946. Natasha, a retired mechanical engineer, came to Israel from Moscow in 1974.
Their supportive community, one of about 250 across the country, is a program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that helps low-income elderly to age with dignity in their own homes.
As Yeshayahu started to tell his story, Natasha lovingly rested her hand on his thigh from time to time as only a wife of 40 years can do – expressing admiration for his years of service, offering support as he began to get choked up, urging him to stay on track, all in one gesture. Their love for one another was so apparent, it easily filled the small living room.
“She found favor in my eyes,” said Yeshayahu, of their meeting four decades prior, when they were neighbors.
Before we could leave, Yeshayahu and Natasha made sure that we had refreshments and warmly thanked us for visiting their home. A home of their own. Where they are clearly so happy together.
“It’s very important to them to know that they just have the assistance,” said Gila Brill of the JDC, translating for Yeshayahu. “They can count on it that someone will be there.”
~ Stephanie Smartschan, Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley
Yesterday, we met Izzy, a 23-year-old former Taglit Birthright Israel participant with an inspiring story. What makes Izzy amazing isn’t that he is a Birthright “success story” who decided to make aliyah as a result of his trip or that he made the selfless commitment to serve in the army and defend our homeland on behalf of all Jews or even that he lost his left arm above the elbow three years ago in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. What makes Izzy stand out in my mind from all the people we met yesterday is his sheer determination and undefeatable spirit which drove him toreturn to the army in a combat unit after becoming disabled (“if ‘disable’ is what you can call it,” says Izzy) and go on to become an officer, leading other soldiers through basic training. Izzy explains that it took awhile to convince the army and push through the bureaucracy to prove he could and should return to active service; he wouldn’t take no for an answer and became the first soldier with such a severe injury to accomplish such a feat.
But it turns out that in some ways, Izzy is not so special. It seems that the Israeli spirit is all about “not taking no for an answer.” Over and over, we are meeting amazing “new Zionists” who are developing Israel and finding unique and promising solutions to uniquely Israeli issues.
Like Eliad, a young new father who explained to us while his three-month-old daughter Aviv napped without a care in the world strapped in a baby carrier to his chest, how his JAFI Young Community found a way to both revitalize his Be’er Sheva neighborhood while giving at-risk area youth a chance to learn valuable job skills. The result: the Ringelbaum Cafe, owned by the Tor Hamidbar non-profit for the purpose of actually turning a profit that can be rolled right back into the community. Eliad would not accept that he and his friends, socially isolated from their families who live farther north, needed a way to provide social support to young families, or that his neighborhood needed new and welcoming businesses or that local youth needed a real solution to give them more than hope but actual skills. He helped to find a clever solution that addresses all three issues at once and put it into action and with a little push from Federation funding, is succeeding.
Or Arale Rothstein, the principal of the Sha’ar Hanegev school, just a stone’s throw from the Gaza border, which educates infectiously enthusiastic teenagers under the constant threat of terrorist attack. They do not take no for an answer by building their school elsewhere. Instead, they stay right where they are and with the help of World ORT, they actually pioneer innovative educational methods envied by delegations of educators from around the world. World ORT is helping them to build fully fortified school (capable of withstanding a direct rocket hit) for which a waiting list of students has formed. As Arale explains, in order to be where they are, to hold their ground and not give into terror and fear, they must be different – they must be better. And so they are – turning out students like Yael, confident, energetic and ready to use her strengths to continue to advance Israeli society.
Or Liora, a beautiful Ethiopian woman who would not accept that her Ethiopian sisters struggle to integrate into a new and strange way of life in their homeland. Rather than allowing them to flounder on the periphery with sub-par jobs or no job at all, struggling with confidence, a foreign language and cultural gaps, she founded Eshet Chayil (through JDC) which teaches them basic skills, such as time management, job interview techniques, how to communicate with your employer. She knew that Ethiopian women are strong and hardworking so rather than just give them handouts, she took a different path. By giving them the confidence they need to say “I can” and working within the existing family structure to integrate this new kind of Ethopian Israeli woman, she is making changes in the fabric of Israeli society with the potential for a far-reaching impact.
So, as David Palmach, of JAFI’s Nitsana Youth Village in the Negev explained to us yesterday, Israelis “think outside the box.” And so they do! This is not my first trip to Israel, but it is my first trip to THIS Israel. This mission has given me a wholly new look and a real insider’s view of what makes Israel tick. I have had the opportunity to see programs and people I would not otherwise see as a tourist or even as a citizen here. They have inspired me all over again and made me fall in love with the land, the people, the culture and especially our Federation mission to support and stand by our Israeli brother and sisters who keep and protect and grow the only place in the world that is a home to us all.
~Erryn Abiri, Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County
Today was the first “official” day of the 2012 JFNA Marketing Mission to Israel! Waking up this morning in my hotel room at the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem made me thankful for so much already and my experience had just begun.
First, I was thankful for a restful night sleep since I had been traveling all day and night the day before. Second, I had already learned so much from my marketing colleagues about their federations and knew there was a lot more collaboration to come. Lastly, I am grateful to my CEO for allowing me to come on this mission and see the amazing work firsthand that federation dollars support.
The most exciting visit today for me was to the home of Osnat Moshe, a woman who lives in a rural part of Beit Shemesh. Osnat participated in the Jewish Agency’s Ethnic Cooks program, an initiative that began with the Beit Shemesh partnership. The program helps harness the strength of women’s skills, backgrounds and interests (for Osnat, it’s cooking) to help them achieve their dreams. Osnat is an amazing cook, and with the assistance and skills she learned in the agency’s program, provides workshops in Kurdish cooking to women in the community and owns a catering business.
We arrived around 2:00 to her quaint home where you could see the orange and lemon trees in the front yard along with the busyness of her daughter and granddaughters helping prepare our lunch. I couldn’t imagine how in this small home all 20 of us were going to fit for lunch. We first stepped into her outdoor kitchen, which when Osnat first moved to Israel in 1951 from Kurdistan, was used to dry tobacco leaves which they grew in their yard.
The first thing we noticed in the kitchen were the 2 small burners she cooked on. No commercial stoves or ovens, no large refrigerators or pantries, just 1 stove and a burner on the floor. How in the world did Osnat cook for all of us with such limited resources? One colleague even mentioned that she knew one of her donors that could provide another stove immediately!
We were then led into Osnat’s home which had 2 large tables set for lunch. It was a wonderful family atmosphere and when the first course was served, it was amazing and I was very satisfied with this lunch… Kubbeh Hamu, (like matzah balls stuffed with beef in a light tomato soup-yum!) pickled veggies, salad, fresh lemonade, bread— all of it so savory and delish!
But…just when you think you’re done with your meal…another bowl appeared on the table with a meatball-type dish, our bread basket refilled, and we all commented on how delicious this dish was, too. The meal didn’t finish until 2 more dishes were brought out, a stuffed cabbage/okra dish and roasted chicken.
The dishes were all made from scratch, nothing bought from the store (except the bread). I felt good eating this food, not only because it didn’t contain preservatives or by products or fillers, but because Osnat had put her skills, love, warmth, humor, patience and time into providing it for us. I was honored to be sitting around her lunch table benefitting from the food, the conversation, the camaraderie. Knowing that our federation dollars provided Osnat with the acumen she needed to build a business and sustain her life, was definitely the cherry on top.
~Hillary Burlbaw, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas
This afternoon we went to Nitzana - a youth village, which is sort of like a year-round camp and boarding school. We met some amazing people; the young people who are doing their year of service before joining the army and the people who are participating in MASA from the Former Soviet Union - including Natalie who is from Atlanta’s partnership city of Minsk, Belarus.
But, the most amazing person we met today was David who runs Nitzana. I think he’s the Israeli MacGuyver; he has created a beautiful and pretty self-sufficient place at the “end of the road” as he said. And, it is… Nitzana is in the Negev and as a first-timer to Israel, it looks like what I thought the whole country would look like - a desert. Not only that, but you can see Egypyt from the top of the hill there, so in many ways, it is the end of Israel.
David showed us the solar panels, greenhouse, pomegranate trees, eucalpytus trees they make honey from. He told us about the 5 programs they provide to youth in Israel and young adults from America and around the world. He showed us the museum of art made from recycled garbage, another one of the history of the region. Everything he shared with us was with intense passion - that is what I loved about him.
He also took the group on a bike ride… I walked since my cycling skills are limited, but how I got there didn’t matter. At the top of this hill in the dessert, he called everyone over and began singing Shalom Alechem. It\s a song I used to sing every Shabbat with my family and so singing it here with this new family I have made while on this trip was incredibly moving. Even now writing this I am tearing up… it was the “Israel moment” everyone said I would have. And, so I did and it was while I was learning about the wonderful work we support every day through our work with the Jewish community.
~ Tali Benjamin, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta