Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mangoes and other strange Israeli philanthropic fruit.

Our Strategic Partnerships Mission in Israel continues with the wonderful trustees of the Farash Foundation. We had a superb briefing by my colleague, Galit Sagie, Director of Planning and Development for JDC-Israel. 

One of the most interesting developments in Israeli philanthropy in the past few years has been the "MaNGoes" - an acronym (sorta) for "my own NGO" - an attempt by Israeli philanthropists to set up their own pet projects, supported by their own philanthropic foundation. Occasionally this results in the Israeli philanthropist turning to US philanthropic funds asking for their help and support.

On the other hand, we're a long way off, still, from Israeli Board members on NGOs being expected to make a donation to the cause for which they were asked to sit.

We've come a very long way in a short time with Israeli philanthropy. We were a social-welfare and pseudo-socialist state, in which expectations came from the people to the State. We have a massive culture of volunteerism, but that doesn't translate to an organized culture of philanthropy. (Disorganization we seem to have lots of ....)

But we've come a very long way.

Israeli Society

I'm here in Israel with the first-ever mission of the Farash Foundation. In a packed itinerary, we’re experiencing the challenges and horizons of Israel, and the work of the Joint.

One of our most impressive meetings was an introduction to Israeli society and its challenges by Professor Jack Habib, Director of Myers-JDC-Brookdale, our foremost applied-social research institute.

Jack gave a superb overview of the challenges that Israel faces, which in some ways are even more striking than any other country:
(1)   huge immigration, per capita more than any other country
(2)   massive cultural diversity
(3)   and huge diversity in social capital, wide gaps and inequality.

From 1948, with two populations (Ashkenazi-Sephardi) widely different in their education, culture, understandings, then absorbing an immigrant population and doubling the size of the State in two years … to 1990, when 5 million Israelis absorbed a million Russian speakers in less than ten years. The challenges have been immense. But we shouldn’t forget the successes.
In 1992, at the height of immigration, unemployment in Israel was 25%
Just four years later, it had dropped to 6%.

When we invest in immigrants, we get great results.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Anti-Semitic acts in Budapest stun Habonim congregants

By Nancy Kirsch
Friday, 26 April 2013 02:21
Steve Jacobson, who visits Budapest often, deconstructs Hungarian Jewish life
/Some Temple Habonim congregants visit a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland in March 2013. Rabbi Andrew Klein/Some Temple Habonim congregants visit a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland in March 2013. Rabbi Andrew KleinPROVIDENCE – Shouts of “Heil Hitler” and “You [expletive] 
Jews, go back to the camps” shocked a group of Temple 
Habonim congregants  who visited Budapest in March. The 
group visited five cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna 
and Prague – during a 12-day trip.
In an interview with The Jewish Voice & Herald, Rabbi Andrew 
Klein of Temple Habonim, a Reform synagogue in Barrington, 
recounted the disturbing anti-Semitic encounter, one that left several individuals 
understandably feeling shaken and disturbed.
After visiting the Dohány Street Synagogue and a Holocaust memorial, the group was 
waiting for their tour bus on a frigid, snowy day.
“Behind us was a group of three young men – probably drunk – scaring and intimidating
 and harassing us in Hungarian,” Rabbi Klein said. “Our Jewish guide translated [their 
words] for us.”
As one of the young men gave a “Heil Hitler” salute, several Hungarian passersby didn’t 
respond or react to the harassment, he said. “It seemed to be the normal course … no 
big deal.”
They also heard about anti-Semitism from a cantor in Budapest whose children faced 
anti-Semitic atrocities each day, said Rabbi Klein, referencing the cantor’s comments. 
The cantor wondered, said the rabbi, how much longer he and his family would remain 
in Budapest.
Anti-Semitism has become a huge problem in Hungary, since the Communists left 
power about 10 years ago, Rabbi Klein learned from the tour guide.
Steve Jacobson of the Providence-based Dorot Foundation knows Budapest well. 
Vice president strategy and director of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel, Jacobson 
leads a five-day seminar in Budapest for Dorot Foundation Fellows who participate 
in a seminar to investigate the historical and contemporary experience of Hungarian 
Jews in Budapest. He had led these trips for the past decade.
Learning about the experience of the Habonimites, Jacobson said, “It must have been 
horrific … I have a different story to tell about the nature of anti-Semitism in Budapest.”
Jacobson asserted how difficult it is for American Jews to contend with and understand 
the nature of anti-Semitism as it exists elsewhere in the world.  Speaking by phone 
during an out-of-town business trip, he said, “American Jews are the only Jews in 
modern history who have never needed to be emancipated. [In contrast], if you are a 
Jew in Budapest, you are a survivor of the [Holocaust] or a child of a survivor.”
Hungary, said Jacobson, is a new society – one that begin in 1989 – after years of control, 
initially by the Nazis and later by the Soviets.
On one side of the ledger, although the current right-wing government is attacking 
basic tenets of democratic society, those attacks are not specific to Jews. Jacobson said,
“As much as we hear noise about one part of an anti-Semitic government, the government 
itself is not anti-Semitic.” He added that Hungarian Jews differentiate kinds of anti-
Semitism the way Eskimos differentiate kinds of snowfalls. Hungarian Jews, he said, 
most fear official, government-sponsored anti-Semitism, which they don’t see.
Nevertheless, Jacobson related a conversation with a friend from Budapest who wondered 
whether they are fooling themselves into believing that they are safer than they are. Are 
they repeating the mistakes of their grandparents, who continued to tolerate restriction 
upon restriction until it was too late?
How large is Hungary’s Jewish population? Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director for 
strategic partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) 
– which partners with the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island – has visited the 
Hungarian Jewish community, which he estimates at 120,000, many times.
“Nearly all of these live in Budapest, but only some 20 percent of the population is 
actively involved in Jewish life,” he said in an email. “The JDC is working with local 
community organizations to increase the participation of the unaffiliated.”
Late last year, after Vienna’s mayor issued a blanket invitation to the Jews of Budapest 
to relocate to Vienna to avoid anti-Semitism, another friend of Jacobson’s asked the U.S.
 ambassador to Hungary if they could expect a similar invitation from the U.S. When she 
responded that the U.S. government didn’t believe the anti-Semitic threat warranted such a response, Jacobson’s friend said, sotto voce, “That’s what you told my grandparents.”
Although the Jewish tour company warned Rabbi Klein and others of anti-Semitism in Vienna during the trip’s planning stages, the group experienced no such problems in Vienna, he said. “We were never warned about Budapest … it was very scary.”
On the positive side, Jacobson spoke of a “huge resurgence on a grand scale” of Budapest’s Jewish life. Two-thirds of the initiatives and organizations Dorot visited this year, he said, probably didn’t exist a decade ago.
“There’s a thriving, healthy, vibrant, exciting Jewish life to be lived in Budapest,” said Jacobson, an editorial board member of The Jewish Voice & Herald.
With such an energetic resurgence of Jewish life in Budapest, the advice of a Jewish community leader there might be the best approach to address anti-Semitism. Jacobson said that this individual – a good friend of his – recommends Jews in Budapest educate Hungarian society about Hungarian Jews and their celebrations.  Don’t blame, but educate, Jacobson’s friend suggests.
“That’s how the people I know in Budapest are dealing [with life there]. … focusing on the opportunities they have within the somewhat new democratic life [by] celebrating being Jewish and doing so with zest,” said Jacobson. “They believe the threats to be serious but not dire.”
One of the surprises for his group, said Rabbi Klein, was the Polish perspective of World War II. “[They] look upon [the war] as the Polish devastation and killing. Seventy percent of the people who lived in Warsaw were killed by the end of the war ... some of them were Jews,” he said. “To [the Polish people], it was an issue of Poland’s destruction and devastation – not an issue of murdering the Jews.”
Austrians, still in denial about their role in murdering Jews, consider the Holocaust a German problem inflicted upon them. That was what a woman at the Reform congregation in Vienna told the Habonim group.
Notwithstanding the ugly encounter in Budapest – and uncharacteristically frigid weather – the 23-person trip, “was a very hard, challenging trip, but a very good trip,” said Rabbi Klein. “It was extremely emotional and powerful” to say Kaddish for Harold Reisner, a survivor of Auschwitz/Birkenau and a past Habonim congregant, at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On a mission to Cuba, with the JDC

By Susan Leach DeBlasio   
Friday, 26 April 2013 02:28

Our community’s women discover Cuba’s vibrant Jewish life
Our community’s women discover Cuba’s vibrant Jewish life
Stacy Emanuel, Dov Ben-Shimon (JDC representative), Jill Goldstein and Susan Leach DeBlasio                   are at the home of famous Cuban artist José  Fuster. /Cuba mission participantsStacy Emanuel, Dov Ben-Shimon (JDC representative), Jill Goldstein and Susan Leach DeBlasio are at the home of famous Cuban artist José Fuster. /Cuba mission participantsPROVIDENCE – Amid Ché Guevera posters, 1950s-era
Chevrolets and crumbling facades of architecturally
magnificent buildings, hope, energy, vibrancy and
synagogue life permeate Cuba’s Jewish community.
Last week, 20 women from the Jewish Alliance of
Greater Rhode Island and Alliance staff member
Trine Lustig returned from a provocative, inspiring
and exhausting 5-day mission to Cuba organized
through the Joint Distribution Committee.  We
explored the programs funded and services provided
by the JDC and met the members of the Jewish
community that we impact directly with the dollars
 we raise and funnel through the JDC.
We celebrated the Cuban Jews’ successes and also bore witness to their critical needs.
An island of 270 square miles, Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898
and became an independent government in 1902.  Good relations with the United
States steadily deteriorated following the 1959 Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise
to power, until the U.S. imposed an embargo and severed diplomatic ties in the
early 1960s.  The U.S. officially views the government as an authoritarian
 regime that has severely restricted fundamental freedoms; U.S. regulations
restrict travel to Cuba except for certain humanitarian, religious, cultural and
educational purposes.
The first practicing Jews in Cuba were American expatriates who came following
 the Spanish-American War (mostly for economic opportunities), then Sephardic
Jews from Turkey (mainly men escaping the army), and then Ashkenazi Jews
(mostly from Poland escaping pogroms and others fleeing Eastern Europe). 
Representing a variety of cultural and linguistic groups, many of these Jews
had hoped to reach the United States. By the 1950s, many were wealthy; most
had comfortable lives.  In 1959, Cuba’s more than 15,000 Jews had educational,
social and cultural institutions such as Jewish schools, newspapers and
philanthropic organizations.
Soon after Castro came to power, more than 90 percent of Cuba’s Jews left. 
Initially most supported the Revolution, but as the government seized businesses,
Jews began to leave.  By the 1980s, few Jews kept up religious practices on the island. 
In 1992, a dental surgeon named José Miller requested and received JDC assistance. 
Other Jewish organizations also provided support; over the years, the community
became a showcase for Jewish rebirth and renewal.  Though economically needy,
 the community of about 1,500 Jews today is rich in Jewish culture and religious life.
The Patronato, built pre-Revolution by Cuba’s wealthiest Jews (the “patrons” of
the community), is Cuba’s largest synagogue and the center for Jewish life.  After
the Jews left Cuba, the Patronato fell into disrepair and, after 30 years of cultural
amnesia, only a few elderly Jews knew how to davenwhen the community sought
help from the JDC; that support restored the synagogue, with impressive modernist
architecture, to its former grandeur. There are Shabbat and weekday services, a
computer center, a video screening room, a vibrant Hebrew School with 100 children
 and 70 adults, a youth center, a summer camp for youth and adults, a kesher 
program and social aid, and many other programs together with social activities.
JDC-funded vans gather Jews to attend services and simchas, including bar and
bat mitzvah ceremonies (11 planned for 2013); they celebrate all the holidays and
hosted 200 people at this year’s Seder, and 400 at the Hanukkah party where Raoul
Castro lit the first candle.
We enjoyed Friday night services led by two engaging, accomplished young adults
and joined the congregation for a Shabbat dinner of chicken and vegetables. 
Although Havana has a kosher butcher, beef is rationed; even chicken is in short
supply.  For that reason, Shabbat dinner is sometimes the only real protein that
some families have all week. Through the JDC, the community distributes
powdered milk to children in religious school.
We met Adela Dworin who presides over the Patronato and the Jewish community. 
The former librarian of the Patronato’s collection of 15,000 books, she gave up her
 legal career to dedicate herself to preserving Cuban Jewish memory. Dworin, who
visits the U.S. occasionally, always returns, as she said, “It is important to strengthen
the Jewish community.”
Dworin greets every Jewish group that visits the Patronato, where foreign tourists
and local Cuban Jews intersect and interact.  She proudly told us that, at her invitation,
Fidel Castro once came to meet with the Jewish community on the last day of Hanukkah.
He spoke before a mesmerized crowd for nearly an hour.  She assured us, as did others
we met, that no anti-Semitism exists in Cuba.
We even visited a government-owned, Jewish-themed hotel called Hotel Rachel. Young
adults are proud to be Jewish, and security is not a concern.  The government permits
Jewish young adults to participate in Birthright and March of the Living; this summer,
45 teens will visit Israel for the Maccabi Games.
The Patronato also houses the community’s pharmacy, founded in 1992 by Rosa Behar,
a gastroenterologist, and her daughter, who holds a doctorate in pharmacy and lives in
the U.S. Behar supervises the pharmacy, a small room with shelves piled high and deep
with all kinds of medicines and medical supplies. Each of us had packed a large stash of
pharmacy supplies – from vitamins, syringes, Desitin and powdered milk to antibiotics
and adult diapers.  Medicine is often in short supply in Cuba, so Behar distributes it as
needed to the community.  Although her parents moved to Israel years ago, she stayed
in Cuba, where she is needed. We heard many similar stories of fractured families, with
young people moving to Israel, and then often to the U.S.
At the Centro Sefaradi, Myra Levy, whose parents came from Turkey, said that different
synagogues address different needs, and they all work together.  They also have Shabbat
dinner and a Kiddush following Saturday services. For some, Levy said, “It’s the best meal
of the week.”
Community members freely patronize both the Patronato and the Sephardic Center,
which has a senior day care center, where 67 adults receive meals and enjoy activities
such as Tai Chi, pottery and films.
Many Jews have intermarried; in a surprising twist, today, the non-Jewish spouses
usually wish to convert to Judaism.  For the past 22 years, an Argentinean rabbi visits
Cuba every couple of months to perform conversions and weddings under a huppah
Last December, he performed 27 weddings and 93 conversions.
We enjoyed havdalah at the Patronato after a spirited demonstration of Israeli folk
dancing.  With lights darkened, we stood in a circle and swayed as we blessed the wine,
spice box and braided candle.  We sang in unison and wished one another a shavua tov,
a good week. There were no faces, only voices, all singing together.
The voices of Cuban Jews are all working toward becoming one community, while
preserving their past; what they share is deeper and stronger than any differences. 
There is hope, vitality, intensity and cohesiveness in this community. Perhaps that was
the most significant and lasting “take away” of our mission, one that we can use right
here in Rhode Island, right now. We began as a diverse group of individuals who then
shared a powerful, impactful experience as Jewish women; thousands of miles from
our local Rhode Island community, we bonded with – and grew to respect and care
deeply for – each other along the way.
While not financially successful, many Cuban Jews are highly educated physicians,
engineers and lawyers; these individuals have become the community’s leaders. We saw
many responsible, committed, powerful Jewish women leaders who exhibited different
models of community leadership; each had a sense of ownership and pride.  In the next
20 to 30 years, strong, young adults will assume their roles.  Whether they remain in
Cuba or emigrate, it will not matter.  The JDC and other organizations are rescuing one
Jew at a time, all around the world, and each one will enrich the global Jewish community wherever their future lies.  As a JDC sign at its New York office proclaims, “There is only
one Jewish world, intertwined and interconnected.”
SUSAN LEACH DEBLASIO ( sdeblasio@apslaw.com), is a vice chair of the Alliance
board and an editorial board  member of The Voice & Herald.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Baltimore, Odessa and Partnerships

I've spent the last couple of days with my amazing colleague, Irina Zborovskaya, Director of JDC Odessa. Born in Odessa, Ira has become a leader in the area of Jewish Community Development in Southern Ukraine. She leads JDC projects and programming that provide Jewish Renewal as well as welfare relief for Jewish elderly, children and families.

One of the most fascinating aspects that we’ve been discussing here in Baltimore with our colleagues and friends from the Associated, the Jewish Federation in Baltimore, is how Odessa is not just a strong and vibrant partnership but also a microcosm of much of what is happening in the Jewish world today, in general, and specifically in the FSU (former Soviet Union).

There are two clashing trends clearly visible in Odessa today, that are playing out in many of the 75+ countries in which we work: hunger and thirst.

There is real hunger – real need, real poverty. 
Thousands of Jewish elderly are given food, medicine, homecare, winter supplies on a daily basis. 
But there is also real thirst – a thirst for Jewish knowledge, identity, community. 

And our task is to continually find the balance between the two in how we prioritize, how we allocate precious resources, how we predict the future trends and demographics of the community.

Ira is at the forefront of this grappling. And we’re fortunate to have partners like the Associated working with us on these, and many other, challenges and horizons.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cuba ... 1930s

Jewish Alliance of Rhode Island Mission to Cuba April 2013

Twenty Rhode Island Lions on the steps of the Patronato

A sundog (corona eclipse of the sun) over Havana
At the Guanabacoa Jewish cemetery outside Havana

At the JDC Pharmacy in the Patronato

Israeli dancing at the Patronato

 Overlooking the Fine Arts Museum in Havana
Revolution Square

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A thought for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)

One of the most interesting aspects of Jewish Renewal in the former Soviet Union is the focus, in many of the Jewish communities, on the past. A colleague once defined this focus sharply for me. "This," he said, "is a community that defines its present by its past." And the past is most starkly defined by the community's relation to the Shoah (Holocaust).

In community after community, one of the most notable aspects of defining Jewish identity in the FSU is the memorialization of the Shoah. In some respects, Shoah memorialization is one of the strongest definitions of Jewish communal identity. And there's a very good reason for that. For so many years, Jews in the FSU weren't even allowed to recognize their dead publicly. In the rare places where Nazi massacres were commemorated, such as Babi Yar near Kiev, the victims were always seen by the Soviets as "victims of fascism." They were never recognized for what they were, Jews.

With the collapse of the USSR, a massive exploration of the Nazi atrocities was finally allowed to find its public voice.
And for communities that, sixty and seventy years ago, were never allowed to publicly mourn their dead as Jews, the new wave of memorials, lectures, statues and educational efforts are critical .... not just in remembering the past, but in defining their renewed Jewish identity.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Israel's social challenges

I've spent the last few days giving briefings to JDC supporters, specifically on Israel's greatest social challenges. The presentation has to provide people with a framework that's simple enough to be meaningful, but complex enough to provide "answers" on what these challenges contain.

With that in mind, I've tried to focus on three main areas of concern, showing how they impact Israeli society, what their impact has been, and what the Joint is doing about them ....

(1) Poverty. Various indicators show that the OECD poverty rate is about 26%. Israel's is (depending on how you count) 33% ... with demographics such as youth, elderly, Shoah survivors all at that rate of one-third. Some demographics are much, much higher: 58% of Arab-Israelis are under the poverty level. 68% of Ethiopian-Israelis are under the poverty level.

(2) Inequality. Israel's Gini Coefficient (the gap between our richest and poorest) is the widest in the western world. And it's getting wider. And if you thought that the social unrest two years ago, and the Trachtenberg Report, and the election results were the end of the story ... well, to paraphrase Churchill, they weren't even the beginning of the end. They may have been the end of the beginning. Maybe.

(3) Fragmentation. Every modern Western society has perhaps three or four major social cleavages, fissures that divide 'us' from 'them' in our society. Israel has at least 15 - major, significant, wrenching cleavages that disrupt social cohesion and make community-building and civil society more difficult to attain. For example: Left-Right, Center-Periphery, Jews-Arabs, Doves-Hawks, Greenline-Territories, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, Veterans-Immigrants, etc etc. You could probably think of more too.

Once these three issues are framed, we can have a meaningful conversation to have on what we can do and what we are doing.