Our GA Mission has gotten off to a great start and I will be blogging about it starting today. I arrived on Wednesday morning , November 6, and I already have a lot of catching up!
Rahna Barthelmess (Marketing Director), Stephen Cohen (VP, Planning and Allocation) arrived on Wednesday. The flight was uneventful and our ride to Jerusalem was easy. Jerusalem continues to grow and amaze, a modern city in the middle of an ancient land.
My first meeting was lunch with
Cheri Fox, the President of Leket, Israel’s National Food Bank, among other things. Of course, many of you know Cheri and her entire family as they have been long time supporters of the St. Louis community. Cheri continues to do important work in Israel around food insecurity issues having been a founding member of Leket. We had first met back in February and it was very nice to get caught up again, even in our collective fog of Jet Lag!
After a short nap, I was off with Lee Wielansky, the chair of our mission, to Knesset to meet with MK Isaac Herzog, second in charge of the Labor Party and campaigning to be it’s chair. He’s an energetic politician eager to work with Netanyahu to secure peace—“if,” as he reported “Bibi really wants peace.” Lee and I followed with dinner at Adom, a restaurant in the newly renovated old Jerusalem train station—a sight to see for anyone who remembers the dilapidated structure just next to Yemin Moshe, right outside of the Old City.
Thursday morning November 7 began with a run through Liberty Bell Park and down Emek Refaim, the main street in the German quarter. The path I took was more or less straight into the valley (“emek” means “valley”) and I decided to wind my way back through the smaller side streets of the quarter. One of the great things about running is you get to explore a city in ways that are eye-level, but much faster than walking.
You also get to run into the unexpected.
As I was running up into the neighborhood, two men in tallis and t’filin tried to call me over, with the cry “rak echad, rak echad” (“just one, just one!”). The last time I had men in tallis and t’filin call me over I was being asked to put on t’filin by Chabad in Venice; I smiled, declined and kept running. Then I realized that the “one” to which they referred was not “just one minute,” but literally that they needed just one more more: it was Monday morning at 7:45 and they were looking for me to make a minyan so that they could read the Torah. I circled back to clarify and sure enough, they took me, shorts and sweating, to be the tenth man.
Only in Israel; only in Jerusalem!
I spent the rest of Thursday, with Stephen Cohen (VP, Director of P&A), and Yael Shapira (JFNA—our representative in Israel) meeting with four groups who are doing important work in Israel that may be of interest to our community going forward.
Two meetings had to do with issues of immigration:
* Deborah Blum, Ruppin Academic Center’s Institute for Immigration and Social Integration manager who briefed us on the immigration challenges facing Israeli society including about 70,000 foreign workers and 50,000 Assylum seekers, the latter of whom have no ability to work legally thus stressing the system.
* Yifat Sela, the CEO of Aluma. Aluma is a program that provides support service to at-risk and marginalized populations before, during and after their periods of national service. National Service in Israel—the Army and other options—are seminal experiences that can exacerbate rather than narrow the distinctions between communities. Working with, for example, at-risk teens, Ethiopian and Iranian immigrants, Aluma is helping them succeed during this transitional time by giving them the resources that other individuals from more established families call upon during their own time in service.
Next we met with two other groups who, as Orthodox Jews, are confronting the fact that there is no separation between the government and religion in Israel. Thus, for example, conversions, weddings, and the suitability of Brit Milah are all decided by the Chief Rabbi, whose edicts in these areas have the force of law backed, as any secular law is, by the threat of government force for non-compliance (i.e., you can be fined and forced to pay, or jailed for failing to conform.) Putting aside any efforts to separate religion and government (which in the short term seem unlikely to be obtained), the two groups we met with are Orthodox Jews working from within the system to broaden it and undermine the Chief Rabbi’s monopoly on decision making.
* Rav David Stav, Executive VP of Tzohar, a modern orthodox group advocating for pluralism in Israeli society. Recently the group won an important legal battle that effectively ends the Chief Rabbi’s monopoly over weddings in Israel. Rabbi Stav was a strong candidate to be the Chief Rabbi earlier this year during the once a decade election. Having lost that campaign he appears to be reenergized to advocate for the rights of all Jews to marry in Israel.
* Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director, and Mireet Wolf, Director of Strategic Planing and Development, for ITIM: The Right Live Jewish. Like Tzohar, ITIM is fighting for the rights of Jewish pluralism particularly through the judicial system. Itim is pushing the boundary of Jewish pluralism and looking for test cases to tyr in court much as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund did in the 1950’s leading up to Brown v. Board of Education.
After an afternoon break to sleep, I met Lee, Mindee Fredman (Director of Special Projects and the staff organizer of this mission) for a walk to a restaurant in Yemin Moshe. It was a fantastic meal overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
Next up…more of the group arrives!