July 28, 2010

Personal Impressions Part III - Israel

Gary Geller, Vice President and Campaign Director of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, recently returned from a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Hungary and Israel. In this final travelogue entry, he shares his impressions and insights about his time visiting JDC programs in Israel:

Today was such an action and information filled day. It will be very tough to capture in this short piece.

Our first site visit of the day was to the JDC Supportive Community for the Elderly at Moshav Nir Galim. The goal for this program is to allow individuals to age in place/ to provide emergency health care, home assistance and maintenance and social activities for the elderly (including an adult day care center) without their having to move. It sounds very similar to programs already in place in many Jewish communities in America and this is true. But it is a fairly new idea in many parts of Israel. Here, it is a partnership of the municipality, the moshav, the individual and JDC helps out in a few of the activities. There are 240 of the Supportive Communities around Israel.

Here we met three people who use the program: Shlomo, Duggo and Yonah. Shlomo and his family made Aliyah in 1969 from Chicago. In 1944 he fought with the US Army in the Normandy invasion. Sitting right next to him was Duggo who was originally from Hungary (a theme that continues to show up). In 1944 Duggo was sent to Birkenau (Auschwitz) and came face to face with Dr. Mengele. As a 14 year old he both survived (through some trickery) Mengele's selection process and the death march. We had not expected to meet Duggo so we were not fully prepared to hear his complete story, which was not easy to hear, but serves as another reminder of what took place over 60 years ago. Yonah was a hidden child in Germany and France who eventually made her way (at the age of eight) to Switzerland and then was reunited with her mother in Belgium. What does this have to do with Supportive Communities you ask? There is an intergenerational program there called Holocaust Theatre where teens hear the stories and then act them out on stage. It is a way for the survivors to connect with the next generation, the third generation.

From there we drove further south to Kiryat Gat where we learned about Garin Kehillati. Here we learned about a program for Ethiopian Jews by Ethiopian Jews. Not all immigrants are initially fully 'absorbed'. Those Ethiopians, usually older adults, who have not mastered Hebrew and have no trade beyond agriculture are left behind. What is found are often households where the 'alpha male' stays home all day with nothing to do which causes both financial and social problems. Domestic abuse is not unseen in some of these families. Here in Kiryat Gat a community garden was created to give some of these families a place to go during the day. The group reclaimed some unused land from the Ministry of Agriculture and split the plot between 12 families. Our lunch included vegetables we picked there. Moshe, the leader of the Garin gave a full explanation of the theory behind what is being done and why.

Our final stop for the day was in Netivot where we met a group of incredible teens. When asked about their volunteer activities, they each rattled off four or five different places they volunteer, whether it was running a blood drive or organizing a 'Happening' for the city or packing and delivering weekly vegetable packages for some 350 families. For these teens, volunteering is about the values they were brought up with; it is their chance to give to others and to help to build themselves up. It is a social activity. They come together in different small groups to be together and to have fun, though through doing a lot of hard work. For one girl, Moriya, her summer is spent working and when not working volunteering, with little or no 'free' time. These kids were truly amazing.

I could go on and on, and I will, about what I saw today. It was an exhausting though exhilarating day.

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