Thursday, July 31, 2014

My last day

This is it.

My last day at JDC. I've been here for nine years. It's been an amazing, inspiring, meaningful time. I've seen unforgettable things, met incredible people and have never felt I was doing just a 'job.'

I'm grateful for every experience. For the incredible leadership I've seen - lay and professional, working in partnership. For the inspiring field staff and leaders in countries near and far. And for the donors, funders, federations and supporters who love the work of the Joint and its values.

They are our values.

On JDC's archival pages there is a special section, dedicated to those who lost their lives in service to JDC and the Jewish People. You should take a look: it's a beautiful, meaningful and touching expression of these values. Of our gratitude to "the few who saved the many." One of the most moving stories is that of the life, death and fate of Israel Friedlaender, which you can read here, especially the "eighty years later" story. As his grandson said, much much later, we remember not only those who fell, "but also the goals, the ideas and the mission that they filled in the service of the Jewish people."

Over the coming weeks I'm going to continue blogging here. I have a few more things to say. I'll start at the Jewish Federation in a month and I'll figure out the transitioning of my social-media-presence as well.

Recommendations, ideas, suggestions, comments, advice, guidance and wise experience welcome ...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The destination

My drash - Torah sermon - at Temple Beth El-Mekor Chayim, this Shabbat. 
The Parasha (Portion) is "Masei," Numbers 33:1-36:13

TBEMC Dvar 7/26/14 Parashat Masei
Numbers 33:1 - 36:13

Shabbat shalom

I have been clearing out my office and packing up my things.

As some of you may know, I am leaving my job at "the Joint", the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Next week is my last week.
Leaving the Joint was a very difficult decision. I’m proud to be the next CEO of our Jewish Federation. Proud and honored. We do amazing things, with amazing professionals and volunteers.

But leaving the Joint was a very difficult decision.

And one of the things I've been doing these past few weeks is clearing out my office.
Some things I’m going to keep, some things I haven’t quite decided yet what to do with them. Some things - like a particularly strong bottle of horseradish vodka - are here today for our kiddush.

And some things went pretty quickly into the trash. For example, I don’t know why, I had a huge collection of itineraries and boarding passes from Continental Airlines.
Long-forgotten journeys from a long-forgotten airline. Although to be honest, I do miss Continental.

I’m not entirely sure why I kept all these boarding passes and itineraries. Maybe it was to reassure myself that I’d been somewhere.
Believe me, I've been to lots of places these past few years. More than most people would ever want to go anywhere. And I have no complaints. None whatsoever.
I've seen amazing things, met with incredible leaders, and have felt at every step of the way that I was serving the Jewish people and doing something good.

But … at the end … here I am.
Right back where I started.
Normally, on itineraries and boarding passes, you’d see that the journey is marked by the destination. Not the point of origin. Normally, when we talk about our journeys, we talk about where we’re going. Not where we’re coming from.
So it says, at the beginning of this week’s parasha, that these are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went to the Land of Israel,” right?
Nope. It says “these are the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out of the Land of Egypt.”
This isn't your usual kind of masa, your usual journey. This is a journey defined by the point of origin. Not the destination.

I was thinking a lot about this concept of journeys this last few weeks.

Now, for all intents and purposes, I am an American Jew. True, an American-Israeli-British Jew with an accent that isn't precisely ‘New Jersey.’ 

But I’m here, and this is my home. I love New Jersey. 
Fortunately, I love diners and I don’t see the need to pump my own gas. So that’s worked out quite nicely for me.

And like a quarter of Jews alive in the world today, I now live in a country other than the one in which I was born. My journey was – and is – defined by my origins.

Not by my destination.

My identity is mixed, and complicated, and somewhat messy. Which is why this concept of the origins of journeys in the parasha means so much to me.

There was a PBS show on recently about American-Jewish identity and the journeys we make. And in the episode that I watched was a fascinating quote by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Los Angeles.

His grandfather, he said, came to synagogue because he was Jewish. His grandchildren go to synagogue because they want to become Jewish.

We've become about the journey. About becoming.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. When I traveled around the world for the Joint I would frequently meet young people who were just now discovering their Jewish identity. Just now discovering what it means to be Jewish.

Once, in a far-off post-Soviet country, I was watching a young woman participate in an educational shabbat service. It was a teaching seminar, and there were hundreds of 'new' Jews. All halachic. All "Jewish" by any definition. But they didn't know what it meant to be Jewish and they wanted to learn. They wanted to 'become’ Jewish.

So … on the stage there were several educators from the local community. And one was doing the kiddush, one was doing the motzi. And this young woman was lighting the candles and explaining what she knew about them. And she was wearing a crucifix. The whole crucifix - not just the cross itself.

I was sitting in the front row looking at the big gleaming crucifix. And I leaned over to my colleague who was the netzig, the JDC Country Representative. "Nu?" I said.

"Give her time," he said. "She doesn't yet fully understand what it means to be Jewish."

He was right. It's a journey. We're all on this journey.

We’re all on a journey, like the masa of this week’s parasha, that’s defined by the starting-point.

We're all becoming Jewish.
Shabbat shalom.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Transitions .... Ok, what do I do with this stuff?

I'm clearing out my JDC memorabilia, collected artifacts and souvenirs, as I get ready for my new role as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
There are things I'm returning, things I'm keeping ... and a few things I'm figuring out what do with them. 
For example ...

1. I have a pile of Uzbek sum, the national currency of Uzbekistan. Not quite as useless as my unique collection of Hundred-Trillion Dollar notes from Zimbabwe, but close.1

2. ‎My collection of Continental Airlines luggage tags and weird airline freebies from lots of business trips.2

3. A large bottle of horseradish vodka from Ukraine.3 

4. Several packs of JDC playing cards, mezuzot from kids-at-risk in "Better Together" programs, and bookmarks and artwork from at-risk JDC clients.1

5. A collection of Cuban bubble gum cards depicting the revolution.1

6. "Easy Magyar" translation flash cards.2

1. I'm keeping them. 
2. They're all in the trash.
3. just kidding. I know what I'm going to do with this. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Transitions - stuff I'm taking (2)

Four more things I'm taking with me when I leave the Joint. Apart from the whole existential feeling of having helped save the world, etc. The third one,especially, seemed resonant today.

1. A coto (supermarket) card from Argentina. When I came to the Joint from the LA Federation all we talked about were food packages. The packages were critical and life-saving. But the maximum number of items we could give you in a package 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 were the 'new poor' – men and women lining up for food packages at Jewish institutions. People who sometimes didn't "know" what it meant to be poor. 36,000 clients receiving food from the Joint. Because of our Jewish federations and donors.

We were receiving reports of anti-Semitic attacks, of Jews being beaten up and attacked for their packages. 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 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, you could see amazing side effects .... people had more choice, more dignity
These cards aren't about food. They're about hope. 

2. An award from the Growing Hearts of Africa. Because three young woman can save lives and change the world .... and it's been a pleasure and privilege to partner with them.

3. A Chibuki - huggy puppy - trauma therapy doll. Ok, three. Because  you can't get a six-year old kid in Sderot to explain his or her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But you can give these kids a huggy puppy with awesome velcro arms, and the kids can talk to the dolls, and teach them a marching song to get to the bomb shelter fast ... and get stronger. And this is more necessary now than we should have hoped.

4. A copy of "Ayalet Metayelet" - which is a classic children's book I bought for my kids some years ago. But I keep it now because I see it all the time when I go to PACT (Parents and Children Together) kindergartens in Israel. The difference is ... my kids have hundreds of books. And for some of the Ethiopian-Israeli kids I've visited this is one of the only books they'll have at home. If you come from a family where your parents are illiterate, in Hebrew and Amharic, then you'll never have enough books at home. You'll have a harder time starting first grade than other kids. You'll stand a worse chance of getting through school reading and writing at a grade-appropriate level. So the book reminds me of what the challenge is, and how much we've achieved with this program.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Transitions - stuff I've learned

A colleague asked me the other day "what did you learn at the Joint?"

I had to think about this. There were some intensely personal things about the kind of Jewish communal professional I've become, about my learning and development. And about the incredible opportunities I've had these past nine years to see the Jewish world and meet amazing leaders.

I'll get to that side at a later date. But I also learned some pretty amazing things about the Jewish world, leadership, and about how Jewish communities develop. 

1. We're a migratory people. One quarter of us live in a country other than the one in which we were born. Think about that when we talk about the Jewish world, our horizons and our challenges.

2. We've consolidated into a small number of cities. So we have increasing economies of scale. Not always a bad thing. But there are awful challenges when it comes to welfare and peripheries.
4. Leadership is the key factor. And vision underpins leadership.

5. ‎You can't draw a radius around being Jewish. If you start restricting yourself to one program, one building, one small geographic area ... you'll never feel connected to the passion and vision of what we have. In Ukraine, in Israel ... doesn't matter where. We don't draw borders around caring.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Transitions - stuff I'm taking

I'm clearing out my desk and shelves from the collected memorabilia of nine years in the Joint. And there's a growing pile of things I'm taking with me:

1. My cigar-box covers from Cuba. So the story is ... you can't really "buy" empty cigar boxes in Cuba anymore, because the government is afraid of counterfeiters getting good boxes and putting bad cigars in them. But the artwork is beautiful. And having staffed over 20 missions to Cuba I picked up some lovely art; the cigar-box covers are my favorites. Incidentally, did you know why some cigars have the names of famous works of literature? Because cigar-rollers were illiterate, and they would have the news, stories - and great books - read to them at times. Hence "Romeo and Juliet" and [The Count of] "Montecristo."

2. My Kassam rose. Created by a terrific Israeli artist, Yaron Bob, who was helped by JDC to set up his business. Yaron turns the pieces of kassam rockets that fall onto Sderot into beautiful metal rose sculptures. It is literally turning the worst things you can imagine into works of art and beauty.

3. A bottle of "Red Moscow" (Kraznaya Moskva) Perfume.  I kept going into the homes of elderly women in former Soviet republics and smelling the same spicy floral fragrance. After a while I figured out what it was, and then I learned that pretty much everyone smells that way because that was pretty much the only perfume you could buy for much of the Soviet era. So everyone's mom, grandma, neighbor, smelled like Red Moscow. 
And because the alcohol content is so high ... well ... we'll leave that story for another blog post.

4. A nametag from a JDC educational conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. There were 1000 participants at this conference - a local Limmud - and JDC was helping to put it together. The conference was in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian, with a massive array of subjects. Israeli history, Lithuanian Jewish history, Jewish gastronomy, culture, the weekly parasha, public speaking, fundraising, you name it. It was an amazing experience, and a privilege to see the rebirth of Jewish life in Vilnius. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Code Red

I'm so proud of my colleagues in Israel. Having seen this song (you can check it out here) and its amazing impact I know that JDC-Israel is doing an incredible job to help kids facing rocket attacks. 
If you're a supporter of our work, directly to the Joint or through your federation, you should see what amazing things you're supporting ...

Rocket alert song in Israel goes viral

Song developed by Joint Distribution Committee in 2008 for children of Sderot proves as relevant as ever in wake of barrage of Hamas rockets.

By Haaretz
| Jul. 11, 2014 | 2:38 PM
The recent barrage of rockets fired by Hamas at Israel has revived the fortunes of a video developed in 2008 as part of a trauma intervention effort in Sderot by the Joint Distribution Committee.

"The Code Red (Tzeva Adom) Song," named for the code word for rocket attacks in Israel, is going viral on YouTube, with over 43,000 hits as of Friday morning for the version that was uploaded in 2012.

"Four years ago a kindergarten teacher wanted to do something to help the children in her class deal with the ongoing air raid sirens and rocket attacks against Israel," reads the text accompanying the vehicle.

According to the JDC, its Ashalim division came up with the song as part of a series of therapies it developed in the wake of studies conducted in the Sderot region indicating that 90% of children between the ages of 4-18 living in the region were showing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"The song combines lyrics that allow the children to express their anxiety and fear with hand and body movements that help distract their minds to something more positive," stated the JDC on its JDC Ambassadors blog. The project is a partnership between the JDC, the Israeli government and the UJA Federation of New York.

Sderot teacher and art therapist Shachar Bar is credited for composing the song.

 The Lyrics read:

Color Red, Color Red
Hurry, hurry, hurry, to a safe area
Hurry, Hurry cause now it’s a bit dangerous
My heart is beating, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom
My body is shaking, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom
But I am overcoming
Cause I am a little different
Falling down – Boom
We may now stand up
Our body we shake, shake shake, shake, shake
Our legs we loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen, loosen
Breathe deep, breathe out far
Breathe deep, we can laugh
It's all gone and I feel good it's over – Yesssss! 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do you even leave the shelter?

I was privileged to listen in to an Israel Crisis update with some of my colleagues. Once again we’re in a crisis mode, and once again the question is how do we help those who need us most. 

My colleague Yossi Tamir, Director-General of JDC-Israel, pointed out that this time, it’s different:

First, the residents of Southern Israel are under attack again … but they can’t send their kids north like last time, because Tel Aviv is also under attack. 

Second, we’ve learned from experience what works and what doesn’t, how to run programs with a wider nonprofit and government partnership, running emergency preparedness meetings with our colleagues in the Jewish Agency and the Government. The programs we’ve been running on an ongoing basis have set the foundation for today.

And finally, Hamas has also learned from the past and has greater capabilities. 4 million Israelis are under fire, and not just in the South.

My colleague Sigal Shelach made the point that the elderly and the disabled are the most vulnerable. If you have 30 seconds to reach shelter, or 15 seconds in Sderot, what happens if you’re handicapped or you're elderly? To leave the house is out of the question. Do you even leave the shelter? Meals on wheels, emergency programs, Community Caseworkers.We're going to need all these and more to provide aid for elderly and disabled Israelis.

All the overnight and most of the day camps are cancelled. So what do you do with kids stuck at home? You have scared, stressed, rockets, parents need to go to work. We’ve learned about the benefits of makeshift camps in emergency shelters – we provide huge activity kit-boxes, volunteers to operate the camps, the incredible Chibuki program

The coordinator of Better Together in Kiryat Malachi noted the stress of taking children to safety, especially during the night hours. When the siren goes off, she and her husband have only 35 seconds to get their three small children to safety! The helplessness she feels when deciding in a split-second which child to wake first, is even worse when she thinks of all the families going through the same thing. In Kiryat Malachi, 30% of families are raised by single mothers! Moms who have no assistance when the siren sounds. The feeling of vulnerability in these communities runs strong.

We're grateful for those federations and donors who are standing up and helping us help the most vulnerable. Those who need us now more than ever.

We're grateful for our amazing colleagues on the ground - some of them taking real risks to help the vulnerable, while worrying for their own children and families.

And my colleague Alan Gill, JDC’s CEO, pointed out that the reason we were able to mobilize so quickly this week in Israel was that we were there yesterday. And we’ve been there for a hundred years. And if you’re supporting our work through your federation or directly, then know how grateful we, and the people of Israel, are for you, too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We don't pump our own gas

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to be transitioning out of JDC and into my new position as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, NJ.

I'm going to spend some time meeting with individuals, leaders and agencies in our community.

If you're in this community - reach out to me. I'm on twitter, linkedin, facebook, you can email me ... it's actually kinda difficult to avoid me. But I'd love to hear from you. Specifically, tell me:

* what you think I should focus on in my first year (what are the community's priorities, the key things we do, the things that inspire you)?

* what you think I should leave well alone (what should I not do), and

* what you think is the big vision we should aspire to in our community and our federation? What is the big hairy audacious goal?

And if you don't live here*, but you still have an opinion on the above, feel free to reach out too.

*You should. It's great here - we don't pump our own gas, we're the diner capital of the world, and we're not called the Garden State for nothing.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


I think this applies to pretty much everyone who's gone on a Cuba mission - avoiding the 'old cars' photo cliche.

But it really made me laugh.

NPR has a great photo-essay and story on cars in Cuba. If you've gone, you'll enjoy this article.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014


My colleagues at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel have put out their 2014 "Picture of the Nation." It contains some fascinating reports on Israel's progress and challenges.

For example ... achievement in core curriculum subjects has improved in recent years. But the achievements of Israeli children are still at the bottom of the developed world, while educational gaps are the highest.

In Israel's increasingly segmented educational framework, there's a large - and growing - share of children receiving what can only be described as a developing-world education.

There are large gaps between Hebrew-speaking kids and Arabic-speaking kids.
So the fact that Arab-Israeli kids are showing the biggest gains is a big achievement. But the gaps are still large.

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