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Professional development mission includes Belarus, Israel

[by Niki King, Public Relations Specialist and Shiela Steinman Wallace, Editor]

Each year, the Jewish Federations of North America takes Campaign leaders – both volunteers and professionals – on a mission to see real examples of how dollars raised by Annual Federation Campaigns are used abroad through partner agencies.

The Jewish Federations of North America includes 153 Jewish Federations member communities, including the Jewish Community of Louisville, and more than 300 network communities. Collectively, we raise and distribute $1 billion through our Annual Campaigns to provide vital services for Jews-at-risk in Israel, in Jewish communities in 70 countries and at home.

This July, Stu Silberman, JCL’s president and CEO, elected to go on the weeklong, whirlwind mission trip to Belarus and Israel to see first-hand how campaign dollars are used and develop a better understanding of the extraordinary things we do together to change lives. It was his first professional mission.

He met individuals who receive needed services, participated in programs that build Jewish identity and community, toured education sites for Jewish youth and witnessed preservation efforts for Jewish history and heritage.

He returned inspired by the projects he witnessed and galvanized to share his experiences with our local community with a renewed commitment to the work we do as part of the worldwide Jewish community.

Question:
Why was it important for you to go on this mission?
Silberman: When we allocate the money raised during our Annual Campaign, a portion supports critical work overseas. Last year, our community sent $194,312 to JFNA to be distributed to the partner agencies: The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and World ORT. I want to be able to say I saw the money in action and to understand how it changes lives. The information I learned and the inspiration it provided will enable me to be a more effective advocate for our Campaign and to convey its importance more clearly and passionately.

Question: What experiences in Belarus moved you most?
Silberman: A group of five of us had the opportunity to go on a very inspiring home visit in Minsk. Diana, a high school student, and her mother, live in a two-bedroom apartment. Diana is creative and bright, but she is also severely vision-impaired.

To help fulfill its mission of caring for Jews-at-risk and helping them reach their full potential, the JDC purchased an oversized computer monitor which Diana uses for schoolwork, to write poetry and for other creative endeavors. She’s a poet, an artist and an actress. Having the computer gave her a way to write down her poetry, study her lines and perform. She was very grateful for this gift and she and her mother understood that it was the Jewish community caring for them. We all left feeling the real impact of how something small had made such a big difference for her.

We also went to the town of Volozhin; saw its historic Yeshiva and sites where thousands of Jews were massacred during World War II. There, youth from former Soviet Union countries were cleaning and cataloguing derelict Jewish cemeteries, helping to ensure that Jewish history there is preserved.

Many of the Jewish children in Belarus and the other new Eastern European and Asian countries knew nothing of their Jewish heritage or identity until recently, so the JAFI helps them fill in the gaps and develop a strong connection to their roots through Jewish summer camps. Often they return home and encourage their parents to strengthen their own connections to Judaism.

We visited one of those camps near Minsk and found that it rivals any overnight Jewish camp we have in the United States with respect to both content and facilities. I spent the day with two young girls, one of whom had just learned she was Jewish before coming to camp. We sang Israeli songs, danced Israeli dances and ate Israeli food. The campers learned more about Israel as their counsellors helped them identify religious sites and cities on a large Styrofoam map of Israel. These children really connected with their heritage and culture.

Question: Didn’t our community send goods? How were those received?
Silberman: I’d like to thank community members and the Louisville district branch of Walgreens for helping me fill a suitcase with school and medical supplies and arts and crafts. The Minsk Jewish Center received them with tremendous gratitude.

Question:
How about Israel? You were there for about four days as part of the professional mission. What experiences resonated?
Silberman: We visited the town of Kiryat Yam to see a science and technology-based school and I was impressed with what youth there were learning. World ORT built this incredible complex in a relatively impoverished section of Israel so those children can benefit from first-rate math and science instruction. With the improved education they receive at this school, these children can be prepared to enter university on par with their peers from other parts of the country and they will become productive members of society.

We had lunch at one of the six absorption centers for the 8,400 Ethiopian residents who have relocated to Israel. We just reached a milestone. The entire community of Ethiopian Jews who wanted to come to Israel have now made that journey. The final airlift was completed in August. That doesn’t mean the work is done. Now it’s about helping them integrate. Much has been accomplished already. Today there are many Ethiopians who are productive members of Israeli society. There members of Knesset – even one Ethiopian woman MK – doctors and other professionals. We must continue to provide support through JAFI for those who have just arrived, so they, too, can make the transition and contribute to their new homeland.

And, we visited an organic farm where Masa youth were spending six months at a time learning sustainable farming practices and values. Masa is a next logical step for participants of the Taglit Birthright Israel program who want to return and spend more time exploring our homeland.

Question: Did the trip meet your expectations?
Silberman: It exceeded my expectations. I’m convinced we’re making such a difference in so many ways overseas. I hope next year we have more volunteers from the campaign and community take advantage of this opportunity and undertake the mission as well.

Question: After the Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission, why did you choose to stay in Israel and have your family – your wife, Alison, and daughters Skylar and Rachel – join you?
Silberman: In order to be most effective in this position, I must be able to draw on both professional experiences and personal, familial experiences. Raising Jewish children really inspires me to be as effective as I can for the other families in the community.

This is the first time my wife and I visited State of Israel together and it was the first time for our girls. We experienced the excitement and passion that a mission to Israel brings. By sharing it, we hope to inspire others in the community to experience something similar so they’ll return more committed to support Jewish people in need, not only in Israel, but around the world.

On the insistence of our younger daughter, Rachel, who is 11, we hiked the snake path up Masada, starting before dawn and arriving at the summit in time to see the sunrise. She had learned about it in Religious School, and she wanted to experience it for herself. For us, it became symbolic of our ability to take on the obstacles, whatever they may be, and be supportive as a family and of Israel’s determination to address its issues. That was one of our most meaningful experiences.

Our older daughter, Skylar, is an equestrian, so we spent an afternoon riding horses in the Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We were so close to the conflict in Syria we heard a large bomb explode, a relatively common occurrence these days. We also visited Yad Vashem, taking care to prepare Rachel, who as a rising sixth grader and has not yet had the Holocaust curriculum, for some of what she was going to see.

As it has been many years since Alison and I had visited, we were excited to see some of the more recent excavations. We toured the tunnels at Kotel (Western Wall), and visited the Davidson Center and City of David just outside the Old City where recent discoveries are being studied. In the Western Galilee, our Partnership 2Gether region, we saw the beautiful grottoes in Rosh Hanikra. We met some of our colleagues there and made a stop at Western Galilee Medical Center where they are treating some of the victims of the war in Syria. (See story, page B9.) We also saw the command bunker that provides security for the region. It was a very proud moment for me to see Louisville listed along with the other consortium communities on the plaque recognizing those who contributed to that building.

Question: Any final comments?
Silberman: This trip gave me a better understanding of the important work we do in Israel and around the world. It increased my passion for the Jewish community and my commitment to the work of tikkun olam – the repair of the world – that we accomplish with our Campaign.

I encourage everyone who has not been to Israel, to go; and those who have been to return to see and experience the extraordinary things we do together. Join the partnership mission to Israel in Septemberor contact me, at 238-2723 or ssilberman@jewishlouisville.org, and I’ll help you start planning your trip to Israel.

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