Day 1, by Lisa Greening
Yesterday, Felice, Sherry, Claire, Stephen and I joined our Atlanta partners in Meggido to begin our week of study about how we, The Jewish Federation of St. Louis can best support Israel. After coffee and hugs with our Sister Israeli friends/partners, Yaron, Eliad, Bernice, Avraham among others, Mayor Yitzhak Cholovsky welcomed us and oriented our understanding around the issues at the Moshavim and how we can continue to support them. We met at-risk youth who had built garden beds for a kindergarten center serving special needs children. We learned about a mentoring program, Lashavet Al Kafe, that has a safe place for at-risk youth. We were thrilled to see a new, strong focus on early childhood education in Meggido. In the afternoon, we planted trees with four amazing kids – 2 Jewish and 2 Arab – who shared their friendship with each other with our co-existence program.
The highlight of the day was listening and watching how interconnected Stephen Cohen is with the leaders and the people of the region. We all felt so honored to help him today and to continue his partnership work – to make our sister community strong and vibrant.
We ended the evening at a winery, Morad Winery. We thought of you, Michael Oberlander, but was happy to each have our own bottle. L’chaim!
Day 2, by Sherry Shuman
An inspiring, exhilarating,exhausting day, We spent the day in Yokneam. We started with Mayor Simon Alfassi toasting Stephen Cohen with a glass of morning champagne. Stephen told the story of the inspiration that began his career. His story was a real tribute to his mother. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We heard from dr dganit Biderma shaley about the Lehetiv. This program was a one stop program to eradicate poverty. The evaluate a family ‘s needs and offer vocational, physical, emotional, educational assistance. They offer transportation, legal and any other services that a family may require. They have a pilot program that showed very little recidivism. It has started in Yokneam with 15 families with is expanding next week with the goal of 50 families. We met Ethiopian Israelis who had benefited from this program. We had lunch at the Ethiopian Israeli center and had Ethiopian coffee and heard from her son Adam who was finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree. He was the 4th child of 10 of a widowed mother and the first to go to college. We spent the afternoon visiting a new early childhood center and unveiled a plaque acknowledging the relationship between our sister cities we then went to the youth center where we met several groups we support and spent several hours meeting with the steering committee of the Kesher program. The goal is to improve the partnership person to person. We went off to dinner with our new friends from the steering committee. We sang and we danced and we ate too much. The evening ended at kibbutz Daliya where we shared wine and discussed the strategic plan under the midnight sky listening to the calls of the coyotes.
Day 3, by Felice Joyce
Members of the Israel and overseas Initiative Committee Sherry, Lisa, Claire and Felice along with staff members two visited two senior centers, One in Megiddo and the other in Yokneam. The seniors in Megiddo mostly live on kibbutzim and moshavim and enjoy the diverse community and activities of the senior center. At the Megiddo senior center women from the former Soviet Union sang songs of Hanan Senesh and Frank Sinatra. Many Ethiopian Israeli elders also attend the center and the seniors have many opportunities for cultural interchanges. Youth from the Yokneam community volunteer at the center and bring smiles to the participants as well as find personal meaning in these relationships. Afterward we met with Avivit Hai from the Israel-Arab Task Force on Israel-Arab Issues. The IATF is a coalition of North American Jewish organizations learning and raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens. We learned about the complexity of the education, housing, employment and health systems in Israel and how they impact its Arab Israeli citizens in terms of integration and mobility within Israeli society. At The Hand In Hand School in Jaffa where young Israeli and Arab Israeli children go to school together and classes are team taught by Israeli and Arab Israeli teachers we heard from a parent about the impact of the school on not only the children but the entire family structure and community. It is so popular that the municipality asked them to double the number of their pre K classes for the school year! Rabbi Gilad Kariv from IRAC Reform and Progressive Judaism spoke about the growing presence of reform and progressive Judaism and the importance of their relationship with North America to overcome the legal and constitutional challenges. He spoke of the growing engagement of Progressive Judaism, its values, the values of human rights and the importance of a democratic state. They are now beginning dialogues with rabbis from the Modern Orthodox and Haredi movements.
Shaharit is an organization that brings together Israelis from across the various religious, ethnic and social spectrums and conducts leadership training programs where they learn to listen to each other’s perspectives and find ways to forge common purpose and shared values to strengthen and support Israeli society. It also nurtures and mobilizes local initiatives across Israel that unites communities in a given town to work for the common good on a local level. This groundbreaking and transformative initiative gives a new vision for Israel’s bright future.
Day 4, by Claire M Schenk
Today was a study in contrasts for our group. We began our morning by leaving modern day Tel Aviv in our wake with a glimpse of surfers and bobbing sailboats before climbing on to our bus to travel to the ancient city of Lod. Upon our arrival in Lod, we received a warm welcome from Avital Blonder, CEO and Founder of Jindas. We quickly realized that Avital was a true visionary and that she was intent upon restoring Lod’s historical status as an eminent city in the region. Her plan is based upon a rejection of public housing in favor of mixed income housing. The planned revitalized neighborhood in Lod is intended to serve as a draw to young professionals while providing attractive housing to the culturally diverse group of residents already found within Lod. Many civic and cultural attractions are also planned including a new mosaic museum centered upon the return of the largest ancient mosaic found in the Middle East. This mosaic was discovered in the historic Lod market place area which is also being renovated and restored as an active market place for local vendors.
After a tour of the significant religious institutions found in Lod, we departed to meet with Yossi Malka, CEO of Merkaz Maase. There we learned of an initiative which aims to offer the significant benefits of volunteering to all young people in Israel regardless of race, gender or socio-economic background. We learned that the opportunity of a year of service was typically not available to lower income youth from the periphery or to Arabs or other ethnic minorities. This year of volunteer service is significant since the experience provides a significant advantage to those who enter the military and to others who seek to follow their volunteerism with gainful and rewarding employment.
Our next visit was to the Jerusalem College of Technology, an Orthodox College. During our session at JCT we focused upon several programs created to make the strong computer science, engineering and other hi tech offerings of the College accessible to ultra Orthodox sects by offering course work which is segregated by gender. We were impressed by both the great need for these programs and the potential which they offer. We had a fascinating glimpse into the life of a talented young Haredi man who spoke to us of the many obstacles which he faced in achieving his goal of obtaining an education which would allow him to find employment to support his young and growing family while maintaining ties to his larger family and religious community.
From JCT, we traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Players for Peace and their managing director, Karen Doubilet at the historic YMCA. We toured the new addition and were able to speak with the young Israeli and Arab basketball players to hear their stories. We learned that the players moved away from fear and stereotypes of one another to genuine affection and that many of them were making friends for life despite the prejudices they faced from family, friends, school teachers, neighbors and other members of their community. These young players hope to inspire their family, friends and community to similarly reject prejudices and to create a more peaceful world.
After a brief visit to the historic King David Hotel, a very long day concluded in the hillside Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem. There we enjoyed a delicious Yemenite dinner which was prepared and hosted by Efrat Giat in the 150 year old home of her family. Efrat related the journey of her family from Yemen to Israel and the Jewish traditions which her family had maintained throughout the years.
Day 5, by Sherry Shuman
The last day in Israel was spent in Jerusalem. It was challenging physically and intellectually. Our first meeting was with the Center for Women’s Justice. We met with Susan Weiss and her development VP. Susan is an Orthodox Jewish attorney who is seeking to improve the democracy of Israel through women’s issues. She is internationally known for her work in divorce law. She has had tremendous influence through the cases she has brought in front of the Israeli Supreme Court. We then drove across the green line to Roots. This is a coexistence group where Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank have a center for dialogue. We sat outside watching the chickens scratch in the dirt and heard the story of a young rabbi and a young Palestinian man tell the story of their lives. The rabbi stated that a line in the Talmud influenced him. To paraphrase the line said carrying hate in your heart was like idolatry. It changed him. We had a quick falafel in the old city and went on to Yedid. This was a social service agency with many offices across Israel trying to help people in need. Right next door was Mosaica. This agency is a mediation group that is improving social discourse across the country. It was started by an impressive group, including Ellie Wiesel, trying to improve tolerance within and between Israelis. There are strong St. Louis ties for the director. For our very last program we went back to the old city. Hagai Agmon-Snir from the Jerusalem Intercultural Center took us for a quick tour of David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper (very intercultural) and spoke of his work aiding local activists to be successful in peaceful coexistence. He was passionate and welcoming. He spoke of some of his prior successes, such as giving the police force courses in cultural competence. This is a way of recognizing how other cultures may interpret or misinterpret your actions and showing sensitivity through your actions. A quick dinner and lots of conversation, and back to St. Louis we go!