Sunday, March 30, 2014

And you need to get up!

I love "Strive."
It's an incredible, inspiring program.
It overcomes all the hard and soft-skill obstacles that keep younger Israelis out of the workforce. How do we get them to take control of their lives and succeed in the job market. How do we get people skills, self-confidence and the drive to get good jobs.

Which is why this short but amazing video really made my day.

Want to feel good about supporting the work we do in Israel? Watch this, and know how grateful we - and all those we serve - are for your help.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Food packages

When I came to the Joint almost ten years ago, the big issue was the transition from food packages to smart cards. Food packages were critical in the first years when the Joint came back to the former Soviet countries. And tens of thousands of elderly Jews were receiving them.

But there was a problem.

In the food packages, the maximum number of items we could give you was 18. And it was really basic stuff, for the most part: oil, pasta, kasha, that kind of thing. Not luxuries. 
So the smart card system came into being ... in Argentina.

We were facing a situation in the winter of 2001-2002 in which tens of thousands of Argentinian Jews were suddenly thrust into poverty and dependent on the Joint for food. Many of these were the 'new poor' – men and women, many in nice middle-class suits and dresses, lining up for food packages at Jewish institutions. 36,000 clients receiving food from the Joint. Because of our Jewish federations and donors.

My colleagues told me that we were receiving reports of anti-Semitic attacks, of Jews being beaten up and attacked for their packages. None of it was true. It turned out that these reports weren't true. But they taught us something very interesting. That the food packages carry a price - and not just a logistic price; a price for overhead and our shipping and handling. They taught us that there's a price for dignity and self-respect.

These "new Poor" Jews didn't like that price. To line up and ask for food can be demeaning. It can take away your self-respect. Which is why rumors – false rumors – were spread about anti-Semitic attacks, because so many people there hated the food package system.

So the food card system - the 'coto' card - began. And as it spread, we noticed some fascinating side effects .... people had more choice, more dignity. It wasn't just about food. It was about hope.

Which is why the last few weeks in Kiev and Crimea have been so interesting. Because, in the name of security for our clients and keeping homebound and less-mobile clients secure, we've had to increase the food package system because so many of the older clients are too scared, or unable, to go shopping with the cards. In other words, we're going back to our history for a slightly less efficient - but more caring - method of taking care of food needs.

So, the other day, I was looking through some archival notes and I came across this photo ...

It's a photo of JDC staff in Munich, Germany, loading matza and food packages for transportation to DP (Displaced Persons) Camps in Europe, 1949. 

Because some things haven't changed: a global commitment to providing food for those in need, backed by our federations and donors.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014


We know that there are really high draft rates of Ethiopian-Israelis to enlist for Army service. It’s actually even higher than among the general population (about 86% to 75% for men). But there aren’t enough role models for Ethiopian-Israelis, there are lots of cultural and structural obstacles to success and some major challenges:
Some of it starts during the draft and induction process -  there’s still some clearly culturally biased testing and low quality classification ratings. Many of the new recruits have low rates of high school matriculation (35-40%) compared to the general population, they may have more complex family and socioeconomic backgrounds too. Usually they’re not as prepared for army service.

About 53% of Ethiopian-Israelis end up at some point incarcerated in army jails. Just think about that statistic for a moment. That’s ten times higher than their actual proportion in the population. For women, 10% of Ethiopian-Israeli female soldiers are incarcerated in army jails – that’s actually a decrease over the past few years. But it’s still three times higher than that of the general female population incarcerated in army jails (3.3%).

Why do they get sent to jail? Three main reasons:
Desertion (עריקות)
Absenteeism (נפקדות)
Lack of Discipline (אי-משמעת)

And all of these are preventable. Frequently they come from miscommunication, misunderstandings, and cultural gaps. We have to work to overcome them. And we have a plan to do it. More on this shortly.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

If you can't prepare your troops for battle, you're not fit to lead them into one*

On a recent visit back in Jerusalem I went to a “Preparation Center” (מרכז הכנה) that we run in cooperation with the local municipality and NGOs. Here’s the issue: there are something like 116,100 Ethiopian immigrants living in Israel today. This is now thirty years after major waves of immigration, from Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Of these, about a third (38,700) was born in Israel. 

But still … for both Israeli-born and new immigrants of Ethiopian origin, the process of integrating into Israeli society is really challenging. Ethiopian immigrants are still considered to be one of the most vulnerable sectors of Israeli society. Their education rates and employment opportunities are still much, much lower than the national average. 

The key stage in integration, really the most important tests of successfully integrating into Israeli society and culture is serving in the Israeli army. Army service is an ‘indicator’ – it signals to everyone a sense of belonging to, and integrating in, Israeli society.

We have an incredible program, called Springboard, which focuses on preparing Ethiopian-Israeli youth for Army service. I’ll write on this at some point in the near future. But in the interim, think about this: 

"Even though Ethiopians are motivated and conscripted at the highest levels — fully 90% of men go, compared with 75% of Israeli men overall — almost half of them are spending part of their service in prison. Many are incarcerated more than once."

*Lt Col Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff 2007-2011

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Shifting sands and quagmires - the deaths of Nadav and Avihu

My drash this Shabbat at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chaim in Cranford, NJ ...

Shabbat shalom.

It was so nice, last week, looking at the Purim story.

The Jews are saved from destruction. Grief and mourning are turned into happiness and celebration.
And now …. here we are, just one week later in Parashat Shmini, looking at happiness and celebration turn into grief and mourning.
Nadav and Avihu, the oldest and second sons of Aaron, killed for what seems to be a minor transgression.
 וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם
And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his firepan, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them.  
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה
And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them, and they died before God.

We don’t even really know why they die.

The only real clue we get in the parasha is the command given to Aaron immediately afterwards.
Moses tells Aaron not to enter the Temple intoxicated.

So maybe Nadav and Avihu died because they approached God in the wrong state of mind?
The Talmud says that they were punished for innovation and because they ignored the authority of Moses.
There’s a good explanation by the Ba’al HaTurim, who says that אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה (they were not commanded) actually means אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה - לֹא (they were commanded not to). In other words, that they deliberately ignored what they were told not to do.

The deaths of Nadav and Avihu always fascinated me.
It always seemed to me that there was some kind of double standard here.
It’s as if God is holding them up to a different rule than everyone else is expected to follow.
Even if they were guilty of being drunk, or of hubris - were they killed because they didn’t follow the rules?
Because they decided to innovate rather than follow the community?

We don’t usually punish people for these kind of things.
But we do apparently punish leaders for these kind of things.

And what you see here is a clear and precise punishment for leaders because of the positions that they held and their failure to uphold them.
We’re accustomed to this double standard in Jewish life.

Precisely because we’re Jews, we say that we have a greater obligation, a greater commitment. We’re not chosen because we’re better; we’re chosen because we have a special relationship with God.
It’s not an easy standard - because it’s frequently misunderstood.
It means that we have an obligation to repair, to serve and to behave better.

It’s not a license to exploit, or serve ourselves, or get rich at the expense of others. It’s a license to see how the world works and to partner with others where we can, to make things better.
It is the essence of our work at the Joint.

Sixty eight years ago, this month, Winston Churchill stood in Fulton, Missouri and gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he said.
It’s the classic text about the beginning of the Cold War; maybe one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century. Every student of politics has to read and study it. And if you get the chance to read it, you’ll see why the imagery and language resonate even today.

But the Fulton speech also introduced into common language a phrase that Churchill had started to adopt: the “special relationship.”
The “special relationship” was the exceptionally close political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military and historical relations between the United Kingdom and the United States.
It was a unique bond that defined everything between the two sides and guided their leaders.

I was no fan, as a child growing up in England, of Margaret Thatcher.
But her dedication to that relationship guided how she saw her role as a leader.
When Thatcher met with (Soviet leader) Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time, he tried to drive a wedge between her and the US.
But “I am an ally of the United States,” she said. “We believe the same things, we believe passionately in the same battle of ideas, we will defend them to the hilt. Never,” she said to Gorbachev, “try to separate me from them.”

Thatcher’s legacy and achievements may be topics of legitimate debate.
But there’s no question about her leadership abilities and her commitment to this belief: that the special relationship was based on shared ideals and values that were worth defending by its leaders.
And more importantly, that the relationship was bigger than the two sides alone. It “stood” for something. It meant something.
And it was the job of the leaders to uphold that relationship and its values.

Special relationships are special because they are held to a different, higher standard.
Leaders uphold them because they symbolize a commitment, not an excuse.
They represent an ideal to strive toward, not a territory to conquer.
They represent an expectation of service, not a demand for privilege.

Churchill and Roosevelt, like those who came after them, built their achievements through decades of trust and dedication. Through service. Through a commitment to greater ideals. What was the point of their Special Relationship? Churchill said in his Fulton speech that the ideal of the British-American understanding was to uphold the idea of Peace and the United Nations.

There are other Special Relationships that we read about every day. In the news, in business, in our daily dealings. Relationships based on power, on greed, or personal gain.

At their core is the very essence of what struck down Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu had been appointed to serve the People. Their role was to serve a greater good with the public flame but they ignored that ideal. They betrayed the public trust. They failed the test of leadership.

These double standards are important because they are at the heart of what we learn in this week’s Parasha.
Just because you strive for values and ideals in your work doesn’t mean that your stance is morally superior. It means that you need to work harder.
Leadership doesn’t convey more privileges, more rights. It requires more duties, and more humility.

We need to hold our leaders – and ourselves – to a different kind of double standard: upholding the benefit of our people, and working for higher ideals.

All these are, at their core, lessons in leadership.

And these lessons are just as critical to us today – - perhaps even more so  - than during the time of Nadav and Avihu. They are just as focused on issues of life and death, and leadership, and responsibility.

Standing at Fulton, Churchill saw what Nadav and Avihu did not see. He even used the concept of the Temple to explain his vision:

“We must make sure that [the common goal of global responsibility]…  is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can someday be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.
Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon a rock.
Anyone can see with his eyes open that our path will be difficult and also long, but if we persevere together … I cannot doubt that we shall achieve our common purpose in the end.”

Shabbat shalom

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Cosmonauts and women

I was in Westport the other day, giving a briefing to the Jewish federation on Russia and Ukraine and the work we do together. 
And a random factoid came up, which I want to bring up here. 

We were talking about Saratov, the unofficial second capital of the Volga region of Russia. I made a joke about Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s first cosmonaut, who not only came from Saratov but also landed his Soyuz capsule there (the joke was that he wanted to go home to his mom and dad for dinner*). 
But the other point that lots of Russians have told me was that “Saratov has the most beautiful women in Russia.”

So … I checked with some colleagues and research notes on this issue. And if you ever wanted “proof” (such as it is) for how long-lasting some impressions can be in these areas … here’s a good example. 
The story that beautiful women are from Saratov comes from 1247, when the conquering Tartars (yes, the same ones we’re now talking about in Crimea) ordered all the beautiful women of Russia to go to Saratov.

You could legitimately claim that things may have changed slightly in the last 700 years.
But then you’d be grappling with the weight of history

*it was funny. You had to be there.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Look into my eyes

When Ethiopian-Israeli kids, who have been brought up in a traditional environment, get to the Army Induction Center (“Bakum”) as they prepare to be drafted …. something really interesting happens.

Ethiopians generally won’t look authority-figures in the eyes, out of respect. 

But if that happens to you when you’re facing an Inductions Officer (קצין מיון) then you’re in big trouble … because the first thing the officer will think is, 'this recruit has no self-confidence.'
Suddenly, in an instant, your hopes of going to officer course, of being an instructor … of getting any decent military profession are gone. 
And if that chance is gone, you stand much less of a chance of getting ahead in civilian life too.

So one of the cultural challenges we deal with in programs like Springboard – an amazing program I saw recently in Israel, which prepares young Ethiopian-Israelis for army service and successful integration into post-army civilian life – is the soft skills, the cultural skills. 
It’s not just about battling inequality and lack of education (even though these are critical). 

It’s also about changing hearts and minds. 

And not just the hearts and minds of the new recruits and their parents. It’s also about changing the attitudes and perspectives of veteran Israelis: to understand the cultural norms and expectations of everyone they speak with. 
To be respectful. 
To be kind.

My colleagues at our micro-economic research institute, Myers-JDC-Brookdale, have done some terrific work examining these kinds of issues. They've just put out a fascinating research paper on culturally-fair employment screening methods and their implications. You can read the summary here, and the executive summary here. And if your Hebrew is really good, you can read the whole thing here. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Land of the widening bases

Kazakhstan is one of my favorite places. I’ve been there several times, and I find the culture and people fascinating. If you get the chance to come with us on a mission, you’ll see an incredible warm, inviting culture, with a vibrant Jewish community. It’s the largest landlocked country in the world*, with some 130 different ethnic groups living there.

It’s not a long Jewish history – most Jews (or their parents/grandparents) were brought here in the 1930s and 40s in expulsions, migrations and resettlements. So they create their own history on the ground. When Hesed - our welfare distribution center - was set up 15 years ago in what’s now the capital city, Astana, there was a tiny Jewish community. JDC went from door to door and asked if anyone was Jewish. Sometimes they referred us, sometimes we figured it out from last names. We widened the bases.

So it was with particular interest that I’ve been reading about recent suggestions by the Kazakh president Nazarbayev to change the country’s name. His main suggestion is “Kazakh Yeli” (Land of the Kazakhs) – the current name “stan” means “place of” in Persian and “settlement” in Russian.

It’s not, let’s be honest, the most important issue facing the country right now. Or the Jewish community. But it’s another example of the shifting and changing relationships of identity politics of the former Soviet Union.

*but it has a naval force in the Caspian Sea. I love that fact. 

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change

I was giving a briefing last night here in Boston on the situation in Ukraine and, specifically, on the increased costs of our operations there. If we have to keep Hesed case workers longer hours, have them sleep over in the homes of immobile clients and increase security ... these items add to the budget. But more importantly, there's a huge issue of food costs that's looming for our Hesed programs and our clients.

As inflation, hoarding and shortages hits the food supply, we've noticed a 15-30% increase in the cost of basic food items in the past couple of weeks. The problem is that if you're a Jewish pensioner living in Ukraine, then your pension barely covers the minimal amount you were buying beforehand. As it was, you've been forced to make horrible choices between food and medicine, or limit the amount of decent produce you could buy. But now ... even a slight fluctuation in food costs will make life impossible.

Explaining this with stories is important. But there's a clear visual image that brings this home:

Even before this latest crisis, the state-run social services haven't been adjusted to keep pace with the deteriorating local economies. So you saw rising costs, growing unemployment, and ongoing currency fluctuations. If you're living in Ukraine, or Russia, or many of the countries in which we serve - you won't earn enough in your pension to cover even your basic expenses.

Want to know why life expectancy in these countries is so short, and why health is so poor? Start with that chart.

Want to know how to make a difference? Help us help the poorest, neediest Jews in the world through your Jewish federation or with a direct donation.

(The quote is by Muhammed Ali)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time*

Lovely story about my amazing colleague Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC's Medical Director in Ethiopia ...

Doctor With Heart Of Gold Is Saving Lives

Dr. Rick Hodes doesn’t put barriers between himself and his patients.
Talk Radio News, March 10, 2014
I took my 18th trip to South Sudan this week. For several months I’ve been told that while I’m in the “neighborhood,” I should stop in Ethiopia to see the work of Dr. Rick Hodes. We did, and it was not a disappointment.
Dr. Hodes is the Ethiopia medical director for the American [Jewish] Joint Distribution Committee, a 100-year-old organization based in New York that is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization.
Dr. Hodes completed his medical education in 1982 and went straight to Ethiopia on a Fulbright Scholarship to teach medicine. He effectively never left.
We visited his Saturday clinic at the Cure International Hospital, a Christian hospital that let Dr. Hodes use its space in Addis Abba this week, where he saw 53 patients. His focus has evolved over the years from being the primary care doctor for the tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and assisted their evacuation to Israel, to a current focus on a diverse population including mostly Christians and Muslims. As he says, he spends his days treating diseases he had little formal training in, but he says, “Need is the mother of invention.”
Most of the patients he saw on Saturday were “crooked.” Their spines were shaped like saxophones – the etiology of these deformities ranged from infectious (TB), to congenital to idiopathic. They all shared a common smile in which the origin seemed to stem from a deep appreciation for Dr. Rick. As some struggled to breathe due to the loss of lung capacity from not being able to fully expand their lungs, their eyes sparkled with hope – especially when Dr. Hodes told them to be sure to have their passport up to date.
Dr. Hodes relies on donors to fund each one of these spinal surgical lifeboats to the tune of about $18,000 a surgery, a cost one-tenth of the procedures performed in U.S. The surgeries are performed by Dr. Ocheneba Boachie-Adjei at the FOCOS hospital in Accra, Ghana.
Currently he has 36 patients in Ghana at FOCOS, and they begin the treatment not with surgery but by beginning with ambulatory traction for months at a time. It is only then that they operate. This method has expanded spinal surgery to another level and, because of the success in Ghana, there will be great benefits in the United States as well as the rest of the world. One surgery straightened a patient who had three angles in their spine greater than 100 degrees each.
Dr. Hodes has also arranged several heart surgeries for his patients whose valve and congenital cardiac conditions are life threatening. A heart surgery can range from $1,500 to $5,000. A donor can effectively give a heart for the cost of an Apple computer. These surgeries are performed in India for a fraction of the cost of the procedure in the U.S.
After seeing 53 patients, Dr. Hodes took us to a local Catholic mission to check on more of his patients. Dr. Hodes has been working with the sisters and their patients for over 20 years. Like Dr. Hodes, this mission takes patients without considering race or religion. Dr. Hodes is an observant Jew.
Dr. Rick also provides pre- and post-operative care for these surgical patients. The patients are ultimately “healed with steel,” as surgeons say, but there’s more involved. The patient has to be selected first. Scarce resources must be allocated, and they must be cared for to afterward. His fundamental question after listening to their concerns is, “What are you doing with your life?” It is not just a clinical visit. He wants to know how his patients are doing in school, or his older patients are doing with their work lives. One young girl patient says she wants to be a doctor and he not only encourages her, he asks her if she thinks girls can be doctors. He makes sure he breaks through cultural stereotypes by encouraging girls who want to be doctors.
Part of this pre- and post-operative care requires a great deal of “mission creep,” as they say in the military. A man came in who had a post-operative infection from a facial reconstruction surgery. He was living on the street, too sick to work and pay his rent. Dr. Hodes reached into his own pocket and gave him money for a room and food for a month, a prescription for antibiotics and told him to return next Saturday. Another man came in with his child. They had been living in a small hotel waiting for an MRI. Dr. Hodes invited them to stay at his house to save them the money while they waited for pre-operative diagnostic tests.
He doesn’t put barriers between himself and his patients. He adopted his first three spine patients so they could get on his health insurance and have spine surgery in Texas. I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of his sons in New York over the holidays. When he met Hodes, he only spoke his tribal language, and now he is fluent in English and studying engineering in Boston.
Visiting his home in Addis, we met many of his patients now recovering so they can go back home to their villages. One girl, 14 years old, is the sister of a patient who had a spinal operation. She fled her husband and village to find Dr. Hodes. She is now in school in Addis.
At the end of our visit, I asked Dr. Hodes about his dreams for the future.
“My dream he said is to have a spine center here in Ethiopia, where we can evaluate, provide surgery and also train others,” he said.
I asked him what makes him get up in the morning, and he answered, “Wow, I should be grateful that today I saved lives no one else is going to save.”
*Charles Bukowski

Sunday, March 9, 2014

As you think and act, so your world becomes.

My colleague Ofer Glanz, our director of operations in the former Soviet Union, just returned from a visit to southern Ukraine. In his report was this beautiful story ... so important to all those of us who have seen our Hesed programs distributing food and medicine and home care support to tens of thousands of elderly clients in Ukraine alone. 

Ofer says ...

... Many of the Jewish community's leaders in Crimea fled the area the minute the Russians moved in. The only single fully functioning Jewish organization in Sevastopol today is the Hesed. The Hesed director - Alla Krasnovid continues to operate the Hesed, offering not only material support but also emotional support to the Jewish community by calling people, supporting them in different ways and ensuring some level of
stability at "ground zero" of this crisis.

... There is apparently a new addition to the Russian language vocabulary - "Hesed" - in Sevastopol. The Hesed director -Alla gave everyone who is traveling to clients a printed letter, signed by her, stating the fact that whoever holds this letter is performing humanitarian work at the service of the local Hesed.

This letter is presented at road blocks manned by Russian soldiers who are prohibiting access to some parts of the city or accessing some roads. Well, some soldiers see the letter and then comes the following response: "ah - Hesed? Yes you can go through...."

(The quote is by T. Scott McCleod)

Friday, March 7, 2014


My terrific colleague Galit Sagie and I spent several hours in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey yesterday giving briefings on Israel and Ukraine. 

We talked about Haredi employment, and Arab-Israeli women. She told amazing stories about empowering youth-at-risk and Ethiopian-Israeli pre-k kids. What's important is that all these "margins" end up making a huge core of Israeli society: you can't have a "Start Up Nation" if too many Israelis are left out.

Now, you may think that there’s not much of a connection between what's going on in Ukraine and Israel. And yet … there's a deep connection between what we do around the world. We have a global commitment that defines us, that gives us a sense of mission and identity, and that helps us give meaning to our work.

Sitting with those federation donors and leaders – some of whom, my colleague Jodi told me, are in their Circle of Partners (donors who have generously given for 25 years or longer) – you realize what the connection is.
It’s us.
It’s our donors and federations who define our values and what we’re trying to achieve.

And for them – for you – we’re grateful. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

History doesn't repeat itself, but it occasionally rhymes

For the nerdy-history-minded among us ... this is a particularly auspicious time to be talking about Crimea. 160 years ago, it was during the Crimean War that modern military medicine was created - hygiene, battlefield sanitation and the like - due in no small part to the efforts of Florence Nightingale. It was during that war that modern battlefield logistics (telegraphs and railroads) were introduced. And sixty years ago this week, according to most reports, Khruschev handed over Crimea in a strange fit of drunken exuberance to Ukraine from Russia.

I was discussing several of these points (plus, you know, the actual work we're doing on the ground with the help of our donors and federations) with colleagues at the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, NJ, this morning. But I couldn't help checking my facebook feed during some downtime ... and saw this comment from my inspiring colleague Ofer Glanz, our Director for the Former Soviet Union. "Flying to Odessa. German soldiers doing their way to Odessa; The Russian army is in Crimea. Yes it is 2014"

Below is the photo Ofer took on the plane. History always repeats itself, Marx said, first as tragedy and then as farce. But William Faulkner said it better: "The past isn't dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Monday, March 3, 2014

Strangers on the Ground

I was listening in to my colleagues Alan Gill and Ofer Glanz speaking on a phone-conference this afternoon with the Jewish Federations of North America. There were some excellent speakers from our colleagues in NCSJ, ORT and the Jewish Agency.

In addition to some excellent insights into the situation and the latest developments, Alan said something critical that was also mentioned by my colleague Misha from JAFI. “We wouldn't have been in Kiev a week ago when violence struck if we hadn't been there the week before,” he said.
The core funding that we receive from our federations is critical. The key is that we’re there and we’re going to be there.

We have seven Hesed (welfare distribution) centers in  southern Ukraine, three of which are in Crimea, serving 13,000 elderly Jews and some 2,000 children-at-risk. The job right now is to ensure ongoing operations, keep our clients and operations secure (as well as our amazing and dedicated staff), and to plan for possible future scenarios.

But without core federation funding, as Mark Levin (NCSJ) and Misha Galperin (JAFI) pointed out on the call, we’d be “strangers on the ground” without credibility.

So, if you’re a federation donor, know this: it’s because of your support that we’ve been able to do so much so far. And we’re grateful for that.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

I live like a flower

Sometimes, when I’m looking for inspiration, I look through notes from meeting Hesed clients – elderly Jewish survivors and community members who rely on our donors and federations for their food, medicine and homecare. Without the support of our donors and our Jewish federations, these elderly Jews wouldn't be alive.

And this weekend I came across the story of Ida, in Vilnius, Lithuania, whom I met last year. Our car got lost on our way to her in a labyrinth of Khruschevkyas, badly-numbered and randomly-ordered massive Soviet-era buildings. It was difficult to drive through because the spaces between the buildings weren't designed with the idea that people would have private cars parked nearby.

Ida lives on the fourth floor. She hasn't left the apartment since January 2007. She was in her kitchen carrying coffee grinds and she slipped. She broke her hip and since then she stays inside. Once a year a family friend takes her to the cemetery to see her son’s grave. Her Husband died in 2007, a few weeks after her son. Her sister in 1984, her mother in 1986. Her dog died in 2008.

But she is still living. We bring her food, winter relief, a social case worker, and the knowledge that she’s not alone.

Ida was born in 1924 in Gomel, Belorussia so she’s now 90 years old. She’s full of life, with a beaming smile and more energy than her visitors.

 “Oy Joint” she says with a beautiful smile. “I remember the Joint. In 1944 in the war my mother and sister and me came to Gomel and the Joint gave us help. They gave us cans of fish and meat and clothes. I want to share a story. I got a skirt from the Joint. It was black and beautiful with short sleeves and this skirt was very short (she giggles). It was called ‘the man doesn't have time.’ It was slit down the side.” (Yes, I was blushing. No, she wasn't).

“Later when I came to Vilnius I got four JDC packages – clothing, winter clothes. Thank you."

“Why do I live so long? Because God loves me. I live like a flower. I open up slowly and I have a beautiful fragrance that surrounds me. And now the Jewish community is my family, and they take care of me.”