Tuesday, July 30, 2013


(well, two bronze medals, to be precise ... but mazal tov to the Cuba Maccabia team for their wins, and remember, everyone, it's not the winning but the taking-part that really counts, right kids?)

Thanks again to the generosity of donors and supporters who helped send the Cuban Maccabia team to Israel this month. Here are some more terrific photos from my colleague Lisa ...

Monday, July 29, 2013

Innovative doesn't count for much if you can't afford to innovate

JDC’s Taub Center for macroeconomic research in Israel has an impressive report out on the “State of the Nation” in 2013. There’s a compelling case there that Israel’s current macro picture is only positive in relative terms. The long-term trajectories are troubling. The more we know about them, the more we can act.

These two graphs, I think, really put the entire picture in context. On the one hand, Israel is one of the most innovative countries in the world (based on the number of patents relative to population) but we have incredibly low labor productivity (amount of GDP per hour worked). In 2011, Israel’s labor productivity was lower than 23 of the OECD countries. And when you have low labor productivity, you're going to have lower hourly wages, lower efficiencies and lower employment.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Choosing the North means limiting your possibilities

I was privileged to meet several inspiring young leaders of the Regional Youth Parliament in Nahariya the other week. 
What I learned from them was astonishing. 
Most of all, I walked away from the meeting feeling that I was looking at the future of the State of Israel, and that future was extremely impressive and remarkably talented.

Sigal, JDC’s coordinator for Social Intervention and Centers for Young Adults, had convened a small group to discuss the issues that young people face in the North.

When you have a situation, for example, in which there's no one in the Knesset representing the Upper Galilee, you see the immediate effects.
You get bad policy and you get government neglect.
Including Haifa and the Galilee there are only 5 (out of 120) Members of the Knesset – and only one Government minister lives north of the Sharon (central area)! What happens, for example, when a badly-needed government grant for first-time home buyers in the North gets cancelled? “It’s a tree that falls in the forest and no one hears it,” they said.

The Youth Parliament is an attempt to make things heard, to help develop young leadership – not so much through demonstrations and noise, but rather through cooperation and advocacy. 
Volunteers like Simone and Einat are part of a round-table of opinions and talent that come together to discuss the four key issues that young people are facing: employment, housing, transportation and (maybe most importantly) “the system” – how to work together, cooperate, share information. And hopefully, down the road, to figure out ways of taking action for the benefit of the region and all its inhabitants.

There’s a huge learning process at work here, which is why the process itself is perhaps even more important than whatever the end-result(s) will be. The North has traditionally been seen as somewhat more apathetic. You trade off some rights for the famous quality of air and quality of living … but more on that in a moment.

The apathy comes together with a high level of cynicism about politics and politicians. 
But all the time people are leaving and there’s a spiral of despair and lack of motivation. You get low wages, there isn’t enough housing, there aren’t enough people pushing for change … so more houses won't get built, there won't be good wages, so people won't come North, and so on.

Netali, an impressive and articulate journalist who’s also working in the program, put it best: “choosing the North, as a young person, means limiting your possibilities. You have to limit to what there is, not what you want.”

Laila, the JDC Social Intervention Coordinator for Peki’in and the Druze sector, pointed out that the North is very passive, and has been so for a long time now. Even though there’s been some change in the past few years, we need people to get up and speak. In the Druze sector this is even more of a challenge - the gaps are widening there, there’s significant alienation and disconnect from the rest of society. Employers won't hire you, even Druze men who served in the army find it difficult to get good jobs. Laila is at the forefront of ways we think about how to meet this challenge.

Why is the North so weak, asked Sigal? Because, as one Knesset Member told us, we don’t speak with one voice. We don’t even know how to articulate the voice. That’s why we need the Youth Parliament here. And – even worse – there's no pressure on the media to cover the North when something does get articulated. What does the national media think about, when it covers the North? Netali was pretty clear: security incidents, major crimes, and the bizarre ‘and-finally’ stories of the guy who grew the biggest pumpkin and the girl who rescued a dog from danger.

It’s the voice that’s needed. And these amazing women are incredible talented voices for the North. They’re needed because without them, and the Youth Parliament, we won't succeed in creating a better Israel.

They're needed because they have a compelling and critical vision.

And they’re needed because … notwithstanding the myth of the quality of living in the North, as Netali told me, life expectancy in the North is actually much shorter
When you don’t advocate, and lobby, and organize, you get less social and medical services. 
And when you don’t have those, you die earlier.

This isn’t just a social issue. It’s a national security issue. But most of all, it’s a moral issue.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Keep taking the pills

Yossi, a doctor in Jerusalem, wrote a prescription for his mother.

She thought he had mixed it up because he had given her a generic medicine. There's no difference at all between them but she looked at the color, shape, saw that they were different – how could they be the same?
So she stopped taking them for a while.

After he explained the difference, she agreed to take them. But what happens if your son isn’t a doctor, and he writes you a prescription? You may think you were cheated, or someone made a mistake, and just not take the medicines.

I had a fascinating meeting at Hadassah hospital recently to learn about a new program for the elderly in Israel that deals with exactly this issue.

Lots of Israel’s seniors receive more than one kind of prescription medication, so you have a high risk of drug interactions, mix-ups, and potential side effects. So JDC-Eshel teamed up with Hadassah Medical Center to create The Center for Medication Safety for the Elderly

The Center is staffed by clinical pharmacology specialists and clinical pharmacists, who answer the medication-related questions of the elderly and review their medications. The aim is to prevent potential dangers, free of charge.  They’ve answered thousands of queries since the program was launched in 2008, in Hebrew and in Russian.

To give you an idea of the challenges … 78% of the callers take 6-10 medicines, and 19% take 11-15 medicines!

The problem is that, usually, every doctor only looks from his or her own perspective of what specific ailment needs to be treated. So the doctor writes down what she sees and only treats the finger, not the whole body.
Older patients can get nervous about these kinds of things. Sometimes there are conflicting medicines, sometimes older patients make their own decisions on what to take and what not to take, on the basis of really unreliable sources. Some may use the internet, but there's a lot of really useless stuff out there (present blog excluded, right fellas?).  The brochure that comes with the medicine is usually intimidating legalese, too.

So there's a problem with the reliability of information. There’s a problem with time and effort, too. A doctor usually has maybe five minutes to spend on a patient, including small-talk, the actual examination, and writing out the prescription. Who has the time to explain?
And how do you reconcile the different medicines once you’ve left the clinic or you're out of the hospital? You should ask the pharmacist, but there are twenty people standing in line behind you, and the pharmacist needs to sell things to everyone. No one has time.

So .. if the patient knows what the medicine is, what the side-effects are and what the interaction is, then (s)he may be compliant.
But the patient isn’t a mouth through which medicines are given, s/he has to be part of the process, otherwise we won't succeed. A patient will take medicines successfully because she understands why, and is part of the process.

So how do we help?

We developed a model to provide information – not instructions – for the patient, that’s personalized and specific. The phone responders help all those who call (it also works by internet, fax, mail and more). 60% of the calls are connected to hypertension, a large percentage of the rest involve diabetes, osteoporosis, hypothyroidism and more.

This program is a step in the right direction.

We’ve achieved a lot, the service is free and designed for 70+ year-olds, though has helped those younger too. They get 2000-2500 calls a year and could easily expand to get more. That means over 9,000 elderly Israelis whose lives have been improved – and some saved – by answering their questions, treating them with respect and helping them with information.

This is a hugely neglected population. And this is a very treatable disease.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


We're so grateful for the support of generous Cuba mission supporters from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Federation of Greater Rhode Island, who helped us equip and support the Maccabiah Team from Cuba ... my colleagues Lisa and Victoria were present tonight at the opening ceremony and sent these terrific photos .... the uniforms, nutritional support, sneakers and so much more are because of your generosity. Together we can do great things!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Szarvas - 2013

I'm speaking this evening at the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County about Hungary and the revival of Jewish life there. There's no better example than Szarvas .... just received this terrific video about their "Donate Your Day" event there this week ...

Monday, July 15, 2013

How Good and Pleasant

Vera Goffman, Head of JDC's Hesed Minsk Choir, sings with the Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission of the Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA), July 2013, in Minsk. In the audience are Shoah (Holocaust) survivors and Righteous Among the Nations.

If you want to receive this blog on a regular basis by email (about twice a week, depending on what else I'm up to), sign up in the top-right box where it says "follow" ...

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Twenty-Mile Radius

I have a few more things I need to write later about Minsk and Belarus. In particular there were some memorable and moving encounters with local Jewish leaders and participants in the Minsk Jewish Campus. But for now, back home, I want to reflect for a moment on the mission itself, the Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) Mission of JFNA.

I've always loved Jewish federation missions because the values that come out of them are the same values that the Joint believes in, and works towards – community (kehila), responsibility (areivut) and kindness (hesed). And a CCD mission is really where some of the most dedicated and articulate supporters of these values gather together. So there’s a lot of passion, a lot of dedication and … unsurprisingly …. a lot of caffeine.

It’s such an amazing pleasure to spend a few days in an inspiring and growing Jewish community, that is learning to take care of its needy and hungry, how to promote its young leaders, how to cooperate and educate, while at the same time build its future. And it’s even more of a pleasure, and a privilege, to do that with some of the most talented and enthusiastic storytellers and promoters of Jewish community life.

On one of our bus journeys inside Minsk we had a fascinating conversation about what it means to be “in” a Jewish community in North America. What does it mean when we say “domestic” Jewish needs (close-to-home) and “international” Jewish needs? What does it mean when we say there are allocations and priorities "abroad" compared to those "at home?"

And then, on a mission, you realize …

This distinction is false. It’s meaningless. It cheapens our understanding of what a Jewish community actually is. If you draw, say, a twenty-mile radius around where your federation building is located and say, “this is my Jewish community, and that’s it,” you’ll never understand the beauty, the depth, the impact of Jewish community and Jewish life.

But when you come to Minsk, or many other mission locations, you get it. You see the connections, you see the community. And then there’s a moment where you turn round, and look back “home,” several thousand miles away. And that’s when you understand what community means and what we can do. Together.

Shabbat shalom.

If you want to receive this blog on a regular basis by email (about twice a week, depending on what else I'm up to), sign up in the top-right box where it says "follow" ...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

CCD Minsk 2013

My speech to frame the content for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) Mission this morning:

Good morning. Boker Tov. Dobre Utra. Buenos Dias.

Why did we want you to come here?

Because the reason why it was so important for you to be here, to see, to touch, to taste … has nothing – and everything – to do with Belarus itself.

(Because) This is Our Jewish Story.

What you’re seeing this week, and especially what we’ll see today is the story of who we are, and why our lives are intertwined.

Not in some nice, comfortable, we’re-all-in-this-together warm-fuzzy encounter.
But, rather, in some very real and surprising ways.

This, among others, is the story of Meyer Suchowljansky, born in Grodno, Belarus, in 1902.

In the long-established Jewish community of Grodno, up the road from where we were yesterday, Max and Yetta Suchowljansky called their firstborn son Meir, a bringer of light.
Grodno, like all of today’s Belarus, has changed hands many times over the years.
Sometimes it was in Russia, other times it’s been Polish or German.

At a conservative count, if you’re one hundred years old and lived in Grodno all your life, you’ve been the citizen or subject of at least a dozen different countries.

Nearly 70% of the population of Grodno was Jewish when Meir was born, almost everyone spoke Yiddish. There were over 40 synagogues, a Jewish orphanage, a Jewish theater and a Jewish hospital.

Meyer Suchowlijansky grew up in Grodno. He went to cheder, the religious school, where he learned his prayers and the Hebrew alphabet.

But the warm and textured life created by Jews in the five centuries they had lived in Grodno was collapsing.
New laws prohibited Jews from buying land, from going to university, from changing their names to non-Jewish ones. All Jewish identity passes were marked with the word Ibray - “Jew.”

Worst of all, the czarist government approved of pogroms against Jews.
They said it was the Jews’ fault for exploiting ordinary Russians.
When Meyer was five years old there was trouble in nearby Bialystock, and Jews fled by the hundreds to Grodno with stories of rape and murder.

So: what was special about Grodno?
Grodno was one of the first – and one of the only – eastern European communities where the Jews met violence with violence. There were some tough Jews around here.

They formed a self-defense organization, hiding weapons in their homes.
They fought back against policemen who helped their persecutors.
They assassinated the Russian police chief who had organized the Bialystock pogrom.

Grodno’s endurance earned it some reprieve from the worst effects of anti-Semitism, but the odds were not on its side. After centuries of life here, Jews were starting to contemplate their options.

They are the same options that they have today.

One direction was aliyah.
As early as 1851 a Grodno kolel, a religious community, was set up in Jerusalem. By 1902 it was a small township outside the city walls with 2000 Grodno Jews.

Another option was America, a different kind of goldene medinah.

And tens of thousands of Belarussian Jews started to move there in the late nineteenth century.

Max, Meyer’s father, set off for America in 1909. Within two years he had saved enough money for his wife and children to join him.
They reached Ellis Island in April 1911.
10-year old Meyer was so skinny and malnourished that he was redefined as an eight-year old by American immigration officials.

He was also given a new birthday, July 4th, since he was now “made in America.”

Growing up, he fell into occasional street violence on the Lower East Side, petty crime and street gangs.

“I never got on my knees,” he said proudly. “We had the choice. We could run away, or we could fight back.”

There were Jews who fought back.
Jews in Belarus and Jews from Belarus.

Jews like the Bielskis, an organization of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination.
They fought against the Nazis and their collaborators in the vicinity of Lida, now western Belarus.
Under their protection, 1,236 Jews survived the war, living in the forests.
It was one of the most remarkable rescue missions of the Holocaust. 

Jews like Maria Klimovitch, a Hesed client, whom some of you will meet today.
Maria is eighty-one years old and survived the War by hiding in the forest.
Later her family joined the partisans and they all stayed with them to fight for freedom and survival until the end of the war.
Maria is now a Hesed client with homecare services, food packages, and – most importantly – the knowledge that people care about her, that she is part of our community. That she's not forgotten.

Jews like Galina Naumova, a wonderful and inspiring client of our Hesed whom some of you will also meet today.
Galina is eighty-eight years old.

She grew up in Vitebsk, the child of partisan fighters; her brother was killed in the Siege of Leningrad.
Galina herself was caught by Nazi policeman, but she miraculously escaped execution.
She's now a widow, disabled and finds it difficult to move around the house. She suffers from a heart condition and is partially blind and deaf. 
She is alive today because of Hesed.
Because of you.
Because her state pension won't cover her medicines and her basic food needs.
But you do.

There were other Belarus Jews who fought.
Jews like Menachem Begin, born in Brest.
Like Yitzhak Shamir in Ruzhany.
Like Shimon Peres in Vishnyeva.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Chaim Weitzman … and countless others. Born in what is now Belarus.

Because in Belarus we created the foundations of the Jewish State.

In Belarus, we created vibrant, beautiful Jewish art.
With Jewish artists like Moishe Segal, born near Vitebsk, who later changed his name to Marc Chagall.

And in Belarus, we created the foundations of the American Jewish experience.
With Belarussian-born Jews like Irving Berlin and Louis B. Meyer; and the children of Belarussian-Jewish immigrants like Kirk Douglas, and Ralph Lauren.

And immigrants like Meyer Suchowljansky.

Fifty years after he fought in his street gang in the Lower East Side, Belarus-born Meyer Suchowljansky stood in the lobby of a beautiful hotel that he had built.

It was New Year’s Day, January 1st, 1959.
He had kept his first name, he was still called Meyer.
But he had changed his last name to Lansky.
Meyer Lansky was standing in the lobby of the Riviera Hotel in Habana, Cuba.

Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, had boarded a plane at 3am, escaping Castro’s rebellion and fleeing to the Dominican Republic.

By 4 o’clock, news of Batista’s departure had begun to spread.

People started to leave their homes and gathered cheering in the streets, honking their horns.
But the mood quickly turned angry, there were clashes between the police and the rebel militia, who were coming out of hiding in Habana.

There was a wild shoot-out at the Parque Centrale hotel.
(I know some of you have stayed there recently.)

Years of frustration were bubbling over, anger was mounting and directed at anything and everything that symbolized the Batista regime: the parking meters, the slot machines
… and most of all, the hotel-casinos that had sustained the dictatorship for all these years.

And the greatest symbol of the hotel-casinos was the Riviera, built by Meyer Lansky.

In an act of revolutionary anger, campesinos brought into the city a truckload of pigs and set them loose in the lobby of the hotel and casino, squealing, tracking mud across the floors, and doing their business all over Lansky’s pride and joy, the beautiful lobby of the Riviera.
As dawn rose on the new Habana, there was dancing in the streets,

The workers at the Riviera deserted their jobs to go out and celebrate, and Meyer Lansky, limping on a swollen knee, worked personally in the kitchens to give out food, free of charge, to the bewildered guests.

Teddy, his wife, poured some vinegar into a bucket of water, took a mop, and started to wipe up the Riviera’s lovely marble floors.

Several months ago, sitting in the same beautiful lobby, looking at the same marble floors, I was comparing the nature of Jewish life in Belarus and the former Soviet Union to that in Cuba, with a Jewish federation mission from North America.

I’m not the first to make these comparisons.

Many of us here this morning have done the same.

And what surprises people is that, like in Cuba, every Jew in Belarus can leave. They don’t need our help in getting out.
Every Jew in every country around the world can leave. From anywhere.
They don’t need our help in getting out. They need our help in bringing in.

And in Cuba, like in Belarus, like in Russia and Ukraine and dozens of other countries, the challenge that we face is twofold.
Because in so many of these countries what strikes us is hunger and thirst.

Make no mistake. There is real hunger in the Jewish world.
Hundreds of thousands hungry, needy. They need food, and medicine, and homecare.
And you will see this today.

But there is also thirst.
A real thirst for Jewish identity, for belonging, for community.

For Jews like Irina Mikhlina, a lovely young woman whom many of you will meet today at the JCC. In her professional work, she is an English translator and interpreter in the Minsk Transport Science and Research Institute.

But since 2005, as a 22-year old Hillel student, she got turned on to Jewish life.
She went to leadership programs, warm homes, working with youth groups.
She’s now volunteering on a program for small Belarussian Jewish communities.

Irina wants to celebrate what, in some ways, we take for granted in the United States.
But so many were cut off for some seventy years of Communist rule.
And then, precisely when the gates opened, as the Soviet system collapsed.
Precisely when the Joint came back, and we had the chance to start rebuilding, renewing … what happened?

All those on whom we would have built the next generation of Jewish leadership … left.
All those with the strongest Jewish identities … moved to Israel, or to the US, or to Europe.

So what you see now, the revitalization of hope, is not something we could have seen twenty years ago.
In some places not even ten years or five years ago.

It took time, and energy, and precious resources, to rebuild, and restore, and renew.
And we did it with the support of our federations.
With you.
Because at the end of the day, every single JDC program, in every country around the world, is rooted in the core value that we share with you, our federations: that kol yisrael arevim ze bezeh – that all Jews are responsible one for another.
Every day.

That's not just a nice abstract statement from the Talmud – (masechet Shavuot, 39a). It’s a business plan.

No one gets left behind.
Every Jewish community can stand on its own feet.
Every Jewish community can become self-sufficient.

For children, families, the elderly.
For communities, thriving and challenged.

In Israel, for hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable: the elderly, the disabled, youth-at-risk, the difficult-to-absorb, the difficult-to-employ.

For 99 years.

In Israel.
And in over seventy countries around the world.

We don’t need your help in getting out. We need your help in bringing in.
We need your help in building Jewish life here in Belarus, there in Cuba, there in Russia, there in Argentina, there in Hungary.

And those of you who have been with us on missions to these countries know this.

We have a global Jewish commitment that defines us.
It enriches our sense of community and Jewish identity.

Even if it’s hard. Even if it takes time.

We do this for the same reason that you do this.

Because we want our Jewish community to have meaning.

Because we want our children to be proud of us.

And because we love the Jewish world and all that it entails: the good … and the not-so-good …

We read this morning in our mission journals the beautiful song written by the Belarussian author, S. Ansky, of Vitebsk.

The Emigrant Song is our song. “Wanderers, wanderers we are.”
And who was Shlomo Ansky? He was the author of The Dybbuk.
And he subtitled his masterpiece, “Between Two Worlds.”
Those two worlds were the story of his Belarus.

Of our Belarus.

A story torn between the past and the future. Between the dirty, daily struggle … and the noble aspirations that we all share.

It’s the story of Meyer Lansky, who was so flawed … yet worked with the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, to help in the Allied invasion of Sicily and broke up Nazi rallies and spy rings in New York.

It’s the story of Marc Chagall, who moved from Belarus and worked as an art teacher in a JDC school near Moscow in the 1920s.

He wrote a beautiful autobiography, My Life.

It’s one of the most extraordinarily inventive and visually striking autobiographies you’ll ever see.

The text is accompanied by twenty plates which he prepared especially to illustrate his life story.

In the book, he writes, “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist's palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”

That’s why we are here today. That’s why our task is so sacred, so important, so filled with love.

Our love for Maria, and Galina.

And countless other Hesed clients.
Including the amazing and inspiring Righteous Among the Nations, who honored us and blessed us with their presence yesterday.

Our love for Irina and thousands of other Belarussian Jews, whose thirst for Jewish life is being met because of you.

They love you.

We want to show you this today.

This love is the reason why we’re so proud, and so grateful, to show you our past, present and future today.

Because this is our Jewish story.
It belongs to all of us here.

Thank you.

If you want to receive this blog on a regular basis by email (about twice a week, depending on what else I'm up to), sign up in the top-right box where it says "follow" ...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Survivors and Rescuers

We had an astonishing, moving and inspiring meeting today, during the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission (CCD): a number of elderly Shoah (Holocaust) survivors joined us, along with Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who saved Jews and risked their own lives in so doing). It was an incredible privilege to introduce this session. Several people asked me for a copy of my speech, reprinted below ...

Primo Levi, describing his rescuer, Lorenzo Perrone, in his masterpiece “If This Is A Man,” said:

"I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today;
and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence…
that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole…
for which it was worth surviving"

Many were indifferent.
Many were hostile.

During the Shoah, the Holocaust, the majority watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed.
Some collaborated.
Many benefited.

In a world of total moral collapse … there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values.

There were survivors, several of whom bless us with their presence today.

There were Righteous Among the Nations, some of whom honor us with their participation here.

They stand in stark contrast to the indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Shoah.

Who are these rescuers?

The term “Righteous Among the Nations” (Chasidei Umot HaOlam) comes from Jewish tradition – from the literature of the Sages.
Non-Jews who help the Jewish people in times of danger.

The Yad Vashem Law in Israel, which guides the global recognition of these remarkable individuals, characterizes the Righteous Among the Nations as those who not only saved Jews but risked their lives in doing so.

Most of these rescuers were ordinary people.
Some acted from deep political or religious convictions.
Others just cared about the people around them.

They could have been killed. Their children could have been killed. Everything they had and loved would have been lost and destroyed.

For people that perhaps, probably, they didn’t even know!

Bystanders were the rule.
Rescuers were the exception.

However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed.

The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that each and every person – each one of us – can make a difference.
Each and every one of us has the ability to save, to rescue, to change lives.

This may be one of the most unique and important encounters we can give you. Here in Minsk. In the former Soviet Union. In the Jewish world.

Because there are heroes in this room.
Jewish heroes, and heroes from the Righteous Among the Nations.

Some of our honored guests here are heroic Jewish survivors of the Shoah.
Some of them were saved by the Righteous Among the Nations.

Our responsibility to care includes all those here.
With Hesed.

What is Hesed? Not just the technical name we give to our federation-supported JDC welfare program, which you’ll see tomorrow.
Hesed means kindness.
It means caring.
It means love.

It means that the Survivors and the Righteous Among the Nations are equally our clients. We have a commitment to all of them.
With food programs, and medicine, and homecare … and the warmth and love of our community.

So we are honored, and privileged, to welcome all of you here today … and I invite the young leader at each table to begin the conversation.

Thank you.

 After the discussions with the Survivors and Righteous Among the Nations, we were thrilled to have Vera Goffman sing with us. Vera was born in 1936 in Bobruisk, which is some 90 miles southeast of Minsk. During the Second World War, as a five-year old girl, she was evacuated to Uzbekistan with her mother. She graduated from Brest Music College and is the lead of our Hesed Minsk Choir. Her singing was beautiful.

If you want to receive this blog on a regular basis by email (about twice a week, depending on what else I'm up to), sign up in the top-right box where it says "follow" ...

Monday, July 8, 2013


I’m here in Minsk, Belarus, getting ready to help in the staffing of the Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission (CCD) of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Minsk is beautiful. It’s clean, wide, and friendly, safe at night and the food is great.
Most of all, I've been impressed by the professionalism and passion of my colleagues who are working here.

We spent the day yesterday in prep briefings, preliminary socioeconomic tours (supermarkets, etc) and site visits. The aim will be to inspire, guide and lift the annual campaign of our federations in the year ahead. Looking at the quality of itinerary, the programs and – most importantly – the people here – I think it’s going to be great.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Match Made in Szarvas

Quite possibly the cutest video from Szarvas I've ever seen ...

Barbi Pasternàk-Szendy and Andràs Pasternàk met at Szarvas, the pioneering international Jewish camp JDC runs with the help of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, in the early 1990s. First arriving in the camp in the Hungarian countryside as staff members in 2001, the two became close friends before beginning to date and eventually becoming engaged. For this couple whose love story is inextricably linked to their life-changing Jewish immersion experience at Szarvas, there was no better place to celebrate their union than the camp itself.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It's going to be an amazing mission

I’m getting ready to go this weekend to Minsk, Belarus, for the Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) Mission with the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Belarus has fascinated me for a long time, because in so many ways, it’s a microcosm of the Jewish world. 
In every meaningful way – the challenges, the expectations, the horizons – what we see in Minsk is what’s happening around the Jewish world today.

Before the 1917 Soviet revolution, millions of Jews lived in Russia and the Pale of Settlement. 
Most of them lived pretty autonomous lives, set apart from their non-Jewish neighbors. 
Even secular Jews had a decent knowledge of Jewish tradition. But in the seventy years following the revolution, generations were cut off from Jewish tradition and memory.

With glasnost, the opening of society in the late 1980s, it was clear that there was no community, no organized Jewish life. JDC’s Minsk offices, opened in 1922 and closed by Stalin in 1931, were finally reopened in 1990; the first task was to locate and reach out to those Jews who were scattered throughout Belarus. Even though so many (and davka those with the most developed Jewish identities) left for Israel, Europe and the US, within just a few years there were synagogues, community programs, a Hesed program and much more.

And today, like in so many countries around the world, JDC does three things in Belarus:

(1)   We bring Relief to the poorest and most vulnerable Jews, with food, medical support, home care and other programs for thousands of elderly, struggling young families, youth at risk and the disabled.
(2)   We work for the Renewal of Jewish life with camps, retreats, celebrations, community festivals and more.
(3)   We develop tomorrow’s Jewish Leadership with programming and training.

It’s going to be an amazing mission.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Brain Spa

This was a really moving visit.

How do we prevent or delay cognitive impairment?
It turns out that almost a fifth of elderly Israelis (65+) suffer from cognitive impairment and dementia.  Since our brains are flexible and we can learn new skills, (well, you know, so they tell me), you can treat people and prevent further deterioration.

I went to see how we can help elderly Israelis suffering from cognitive deterioration. JDC-ESHEL has a workshop teaching new skills and exercises to stimulate the brain, enhance cognition and improve memory. 

"Brain Spa" is at ten day care centers for the elderly.
The staff from each center take part in a 40 hour training course to become program facilitators, and they lead weekly workshops over the course of nine months involving discussions, imagination, movement, coordination and the use of computers for exercises. Participants’ cognitive functioning is evaluated before and after completion of the program.

The average age in Shilo HaCarmel Elderly Day Center in Haifa, a longstanding JDC partner, is 85. There are some 100 participants who come for a full day of activities, and Brain Spa is the JDC-Eshel program we’re launching there. It’s part computer-program and part therapy group. I went to the therapy group to chat with the participants.

I’m sitting in a quiet relaxed room with seven lovely women.

We’re doing some deep-breathing and relaxation exercises, a bit of meditation with our eyes closed, and the madricha (counselor) has some (very) relaxing music in the background. 
We go all over the body, relaxing muscles.

When we’re back together and awake (who nodded off? I'm proud to report that I stayed awake, comfortable though it was) we have a chat with the ladies.

Everyone laughs when I start talking to them in Hebrew (they were expecting an American visitor but didn’t know I’m from Israel too). Photographs of small children are passed around, my marital status is discussed, and my "elegant" Hebrew intonation and vocabulary are praised and corrected at the same time.

And then we go round and talk about what we thought about when we were meditating. Rachel, who’s sitting across from me, tells the group that last week she fell at home, had to go to hospital. “I was in pain and they put me on a stretcher there. My feet were cold. The stretcher-bearer spoke all the time in Arabic and ignored me, so at one point I said to him, chamud (sweetie), can you help me with my shoes. It’s the first time in seventy years that I've said ‘kondara’ (shoes) … I've forgotten that word since I was a little girl. But I remembered the word this week.”

All this led to a conversation about remembering things, our short-term and long-term memories.  We go around the table talking about how we remember some things and not others. Chana remembers as a little girl - eighty years ago - going down to Eilat and diving into the sea from the bridge – what colorful fish there were there. And how we threw them some bread.

With age, long-term memory strengthens.

We do a round of remembering names and faces. This is increasingly difficult but really important. The madricha takes out a foam ball, they’re all laughing as they throw the ball (roll it) to each other. Then you have to say the name of the person you’re rolling to. And so on.

By the age of 75, half of the elderly suffer from some form of cognitive impairment. 
These kind of groups are really critical.