November 29, 2011

At-Risk Youth Turned Aspiring Entrepreneurs

JDC’s Turning Point Program helps Israel’s
at-risk youth garner business acumen,
a paycheck, and the self-confidence to
create a promising future for themselves
"Fakhera" was only 15 when her father lost his job and her mother left their home to find work in order to provide for her seven children. Struggling in class, fraught by the family's economic stresses, and getting into trouble for acting out, Fakhera dropped out of school to try to find whatever job she could in her Israeli-Arab village in northern Israel.

Fakhera found work cleaning at the local supermarket—working 10-12 hours a day for less than minimum wage—but the extra income came at a high price to her future. That's why the counselor from the Ministry of Education's Youth Advancement Service for youth dropouts encouraged Fakhera to enroll in an alternative setting that would enable her to complete her studies. Soon afterward Fakhera joined JDC's Turning Point program.

Turning Point introduces Israel's at-risk youth to the real world of business, equipping them with job-readiness and entrepreneurial skills and placing them in mainstream work opportunities.

Fakhera was among the 350,000 Israeli children and youth who are considered to be "at-risk"—the troubled state in which one out of six Israelis under age 18 find themselves today. Of these, approximately 50,000 are on the verge of dropping out of school or have already dropped out, show extreme signs of truancy, or are juvenile offenders. They have few ambitions, do not pursue gainful careers, and lack hope for their future, while their delinquent behavior and sense of alienation put them on the fringes of society.

Turning Point appeals to these hard-to-reach teens by focusing on issues which are relevant to their lives—finding a job, earning money, and achieving financial independence. The program helps them restore vision by providing guidance and practical tools to break out of the destructive cycle they are in. As young people like Fakhera learn real life business concepts and job skills, their self-confidence grows and they begin to see themselves anew and recognize opportunities for success.

For Fakhera, joining Turning Point helped her cope with her family and school troubles and allowed her to envision a brighter future. While she was proud of her financial independence and ability to help her family, now she saw that she could get a better job and chart a path for herself in the workforce. "The visits to different workplaces and the meetings with business people opened my eyes and showed me that I could want more from my work," she said.

Learning to interview successfully and build a social network, Fakhera developed a support system and the confidence to look for jobs in other fields.

Today she is waitressing at a popular coffee shop and says the collaborative environment gives her great job satisfaction. Prior to Turning Point, she had never experienced the feeling of being part of a team; now she has a social circle that supports her in pursuing her dreams.

"We fully believed that Fakhera had what it took to develop and advance in the workforce because she exhibited such commitment, trust, and energy in her work," says Samir, one of her program facilitators. "She has accomplished her goals in her studies, too. She earned a certificate for 12 years of study and is continuing on to complete matriculation exams."

Turning Point has reached over 6,400 15- to 18-year-olds in 66 locations across Israel through its mentoring, job-readiness and entrepreneurship education, and youth-run business venture program modules. This year alone, some 1,000 at-risk teens will participate in Turning Point programs.

Now 17 years old, Fakhera is happy among her Turning Point peers—a unified group that works in cooperation, fulfills commitments, and is thirsty to learn. "With this support system I feel strong and know my future is in my hands."

*Additional Note: Turning Point operates in partnership with the Ministries of Education, Social Affairs and Social Services, and Industry, Trade and Labor; the National Insurance Institute; Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship; International Bank of Israel; Matan (Israel's United Way); local authorities; Israeli philanthropic and non-profit organizations; and the Israeli business community.

November 25, 2011

Doctor Brings Expertise and Gains Insights in Ethiopia

Dr. Gordon, BCM-Osher-JDC Medical Fellow
in Ethiopia, hosts a teaching session with
medical students from University Hospital, Gondar.
 In an effort to improve medical education, clinical care, and research in Ethiopian pediatrics, JDC has teamed up with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative (BIPAI) and Gondar University Hospital (GUH). Over the past two years, BIPAI pediatricians placed as fellows have been formally integrated into every aspect of medical education at GUH, contributing invaluably to both the education of the local medical professionals and the care of the hospital’s patients.

David Gordon, M.D., M.P.H., is the current BCM-Osher-JDC Medical Fellow in Ethiopia. He trained in pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, holds a Masters in Public Health from Boston University, and has worked in India, Lesotho, Kenya, and Turkmenistan. David shares his insights on medical miracles, mind-bending local challenges, and the importance of cardboard toys for malnourished children.

JDC: Can you share some details about your personal background? When and how did you initially decide to go into medicine?

DG: I was born in Walnut Creek, California. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer until 1992, when on a whim I joined a program called Amigos de las Americas, run out of Texas. I raised money by selling grapefruit door to door, and paid for a ticket to Ecuador as a "community sanitation" volunteer. I was placed in a small village high in the Andes, where I worked with the local health department to construct latrines, give health-related presentations to villagers, and do what I could to develop the local infrastructure. It was my first time seeing poverty like that, and as a kid coming from suburban California it made a big impression on me.

I went to college, where I studied international development through the geography department, to figure out why people in Ecuador were so poor. At some point, I recognized how integral a population's health was to its economic productivity: people become sick because they're poor, and they become poor because they're sick. I became interested in public health, and in medicine by proxy. The rest of my education fell into place from there.

JDC: You've worked in such a wide variety of places, including India, Lesotho, Kenya and Turkmenistan. In what ways is Ethiopia a unique place for you to be working? What issues do you see transcending national boundaries?

DG: Ethiopia is like nothing I've ever seen. Its landscape, with green plateaus and rocky outcroppings, is stunning. Its culture, practically untouched by colonial hands, seems pure in a way I can't fully describe. And its people are friendly and respectful of me in a way I've rarely seen in my travels. As wonderful as Ethiopia is, it presents many challenges to providing medical care. First, there are local customs that threaten the health of children, and as a physician it's difficult to understand why these customs still exist. Holy water is used for everything from ear infections to the treatment of HIV, a practice which considerably delays a patient's presentation to allopathic care.

Second, the pathology that I see here is unlike any I've seen elsewhere. Ethiopia aspires to become a middle-income country, but it is still extremely poor. It has the world's 7th highest incidence of tuberculosis; it is one of just three places on earth endemic for a parasitic disease called visceral leishmaniasis (or kala-azar), which hits children here quite frequently; seasonal food security continues to be a problem, and severe acute malnutrition accounts for the bulk of our admissions; and countless rare diseases, including endemic typhus (the last place in the world this condition can still be found), abound. The wards are as much a classroom for me as they are for our medical students and interns.

Third—and this has more to do with me than with Ethiopia—this is the first time I've worked as a fully-credentialed pediatrician in another country. My status as a physician affords considerable legitimacy, and I have been able to connect with colleagues faster and accomplish much more than I was as a Peace Corps volunteer, a medical student, or a resident. The willingness of my Ethiopian colleagues to collaborate with me in this way has made my experience here more gratifying than any I've ever had.

Many of the same problems that weaken medical care in the US can be found in Ethiopia, too. Interns are severely overworked, and everyone (including me, sometimes) expects them to be miracle workers. Systems of delivering care break down constantly, as they do in the US, and fixing broken systems takes time and energy above and beyond what we're already putting into the job. And in a busy ward, with everyone dealing with the same problems, it happens too often that providers fail to relate to patients as human beings: we know what needs to be done, we need to do it quickly, and the human side of delivering care is undermined by the machines we have to become. Fighting all this is just as difficult here as it was in San Francisco!

JDC: Can you describe your typical day, if there is such a thing?

DG: I wake up at 5:45 and go for a run along the main road, usually getting warm greetings from passersby who yell "Gobez (well done)!" One child runs out to me, pumps his arm up and down several times, and yells "YES!" The latter happens just before a large hill that brings me home, and always recharges my energy. I drink a cup of buna—or coffee—at a cafe across from the hospital, where the owner often brings his 4-year-old son for me to evaluate for one ailment or another.

At eight, I join the department for morning conference, where we hear from interns about patients that were recently admitted and help them learn the essentials of pediatrics. Truthfully, I probably learn as much as I teach, since the pathology in Ethiopia is so different from that in the US!

After conference, two days a week, I teach medical students at the patient bedside. One student presents information about the patient, and I spend two hours making corrections, expanding the list of possible diagnoses, and reviewing the basics of physical examination and therapy. On the remaining three days, I work on "quality improvement" and research.

At noon, I walk across the street to a restaurant, where I fill my stomach with local cuisine for the equivalent of 50-75 cents. From two to four, I do rounds with interns on actual patients, hearing about details and making corrections to their management. I usually spend an hour at the end of the day reading about conditions I've seen on the ward and making sure my team's management is in agreement with international standards of care.

In the evening, after five or six, I like to walk around my neighborhood. Some children near my house teach me Ethiopian games; some families ask me to come inside to see a sick child and then sit me down for coffee or tea; and beyond my community, in the lush farmland, I like to walk and clear my mind for the night. Then I cook dinner, work on small projects or watch a TV show, and go to bed around 9:30; most of my friends call me an old man, but I can't function without a good night of sleep.

JDC: Do you work in tandem with the other Fellows in the program? What about local medical professionals?

DG: Currently, I'm the only BIPAI representative in Gondar. Usually, there are three of us, and two more will be joining me soon. We all work on our own projects, but lean against each other heavily: we consult each other on clinical cases, discuss good approaches to getting projects accomplished, and point out resources when we find them.

More commonly, to make our work sustainable, we partner with other physicians in our department. Six general practitioners, two residents, and three Ethiopian "senior consultant" doctors contribute significantly to our work, and without their involvement nothing would get done. We hope that when BIPAI leaves some day, we can leave behind a team of providers that can keep our interventions going into the future.

JDC: How do you cope with the difficult things you encounter so regularly? Have you seen any "miracles"?

DG: I wish there was a secret to making the sight of a suffering or dying child easy, but it never is, and I hope it never will be. I've seen students and residents visit this hospital for a one-month attachment and give up after two weeks, practically in tears; it makes me wonder if I've lost some element of sensitivity somewhere along the way.

I do two things when something bothers me. First, I run. Sometimes I run really far. And I always feel better when I come back. Second, I do something about the problem, even if it's small. Of all the cases I've seen in the past year, the malnourished kids have been the most heart-wrenching for me. They lie there, and they don't even have enough energy to complain. After my first week on that ward, I came home and made five toys out of cardboard, plastic bottles, and old magazines. Kids that I thought were lost forever smiled for the first time, mothers started playing with their children, and for a while the quietest ward in the hospital became the loudest.

Surviving here, I think, depends on feeling like you're moving forward, and on believing that your presence means something. A realist would probably die here, but as an idealist I'm thriving.

Honestly, every healthy discharge feels like a miracle, since kids come to us really sick and we care for them with so little! But other miracles happen, too. Interns who seem too busy to improve their practice sometimes take my advice to heart and surprise me with improvement. Medical students who I think aren't paying attention in lecture approach me afterward and ask appropriate questions, even asking for more reading material to augment their learning. If I look for miracles, I find them.

JDC: How does your Public Health background play into the work you are doing in Ethiopia?

DG: As a physician in general, moreover, I think it's important to think like a public health practitioner. One sees disease in a broader context if one is trained to think at the population level. It's easier to recognize clusters of disease and ask why they're occurring; it's easier to include environmental adjustment in a child's discharge plan; and it's more likely that a patient's family members will be recruited for testing when an infectious diagnosis is made. I've heard some people say public health (which focuses on communities) and medicine (which focuses on individuals) are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I think public health and medicine can and should work very well together.

JDC: What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your time in Ethiopia so far? What are some of the most unexpected surprises?

DG: I always find technology frustrating, and technology in Ethiopia is no exception. So much of what I do requires 1) a source of electricity, 2) a source of internet, 3) a computer that works, 4) a cord that connects a computer to the internet and another that connects it to electricity, and 5) a printer that works, has electricity, has a cord that connects the computer to the printer, and accepts my flash drive. This may sound logical to you, but in Ethiopia you would be AMAZED by how rarely all these components actually co-exist.

The same is true for lectures in powerpoint—at least one of these components is almost always missing, no matter how prepared you are. Ethiopians deal with this by shrugging their shoulders; admittedly, I deal with it by getting really angry. I want to do good work, but I feel like the universe is working against me. I'm becoming more patient with time here, and I think I'm becoming a better person.

I've been surprised by how far we get with such few resources. A child with a newly-diagnosed neurologic disease in the US would get an MRI and blood work very quickly. Here, I have to re-learn how to interpret physical findings in context, knowing that the only data I'm going to get will come from my ears, hands, eyes, and nose. It's validating to know we can do so much with so little, especially having trained at a US tertiary care hospital where any question was answered with a sophisticated test. I'm also surprised by both the heroism and the greed of providers here. My fellow pediatricians and internists voluntarily stay long hours to care for their patients and are meticulous when educating medical students. In other departments, however, senior physicians often shunt the poorest patients into private clinics to earn more money from their care; equipment is stolen from the public hospital for use at private facilities; and, incentivized by more competitive salaries, many leave practices serving the poor to work abroad or for international NGOs that may or may not provide comparable services. I really do feel like I see the best and worst in people here.

JDC: What do you think you'll do once you complete your current service?

DG: I have absolutely no idea what I'll do after this. I've wanted this job, more or less, since I was sixteen years old, and it frightens me to think that I have to set new goals now. I have an interest in policy, and may pursue a career with the WHO or one of the US-based health development organizations. Alternately, I could continue practicing pediatrics for an underserved community in the US and focus on community development. After this experience, it will be difficult to ever let my interest in international health go. I'm open to ideas.

November 22, 2011

Family Retreats Offer a Helping Hand to Special Needs Kids and Their Parents

Integration camps for families with children with
special needs provide tailored services and care
and offer a welcoming community and entry point into
Jewish life.
Photo: JDC Website
For Vladimir and Irina, everyday parenting is a struggle. Both of their young children suffer from debilitating illnesses: Nikita, 8, has cerebral paralysis; his legs do not work, so he can’t move without his parents’ help and his speech is also severely impaired. Ellina is five, and soon after she was born her parents learned that she had encephalopathy (brain disease/disorder) and would require ongoing medical attention throughout her life.

The difficulty of meeting their children’s special needs is confounded by the pressures of making ends meet on the family’s meager $200 monthly income. The children require regular doctors’ visits, treatments, medications, and nutritious food—but the household utilities alone cost over $100 per month.

Strained, isolated, and overwhelmed, Vladimir and Irina have no public resources to turn to for help—which is why JDC’s assistance is so critical. They receive food and medicines, diapers, clothes, and household supplies to help them meet their basic needs. They rely on special packages of food and Jewish items in order to celebrate the holidays. But the family has found its greatest assistance in the community and support that embraced them at this year’s JDC Family Integration Camp just outside their hometown of Kishinev, Moldova.

“Other families with kids with special needs can understand the hardships, pain, and fears that go along with raising children with disabilities and help us feel less alone,” Irina says.

JDC supports family camping programs throughout Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Over 5500 people will participate in intergenerational camps, Shabbatons, and retreats throughout the region this year. Integrated family camps are unique as they are staffed by specially trained madrichim as well as psychologists, medical doctors, and specialists for children with special needs. They provide an environment where parents and children alike can receive tailored assistance and take part in sensitive programming designed to make the most of their children’s abilities and talents.

Families take part in Jewish activities (like decorating hamsas, kippot, and Shabbat candles), and everyone comes together as one big family to celebrate Shabbat and then to sing Havdalah songs as Shabbat draws to a close. For many, these programs offer the only chance to connect with other families in the disability community and to find an entry point into Jewish life.

This is just what happened to the Shoob family: Eugene, 50, is a single father to Lubov, his ten-year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral spastic infantile paralysis. They didn’t think other families would understand their trying circumstances so they’d never taken part in community activities until last year, when when they participated in the family camp in Minsk, Belarus.

“The days we spent at the Jewish family retreat were unforgettable,” Eugene reflects. “Initially, I went for the sake of my daughter but I learned so much myself. Lubov found new friends at camp and came back proud to be part of the Jewish people. I’d thought it was hardly possible to find like-minded people at my age but found out just how wrong I was.”

Today Eugene and Lubov take part in their local family club and the Mishpacha (Family) theatre program, and attend all of the community’s holidays, concerts, festivals, and activities. They’ve started going to synagogue and Lubov now attends the JDC-supported Minsk Jewish Community Center programs where she plays, dances, and has made many friends. Eugene is very grateful for his newfound community and cannot wait to for this year’s retreat.

“I have always known my family is Jewish,” he said. “But now I know what that means and what a joy it can be.”

November 17, 2011

Working Together for a Good Start in Life

Working in Israel's most disadvantaged neighborhoods, JDC's Better Together program strives to address the most outstanding risks to children and youth in the community by mobilizing residents, identifying and utilizing community resources and responding to unmet needs.  In Neve Alonim,  a neighborhood in the city of Ashkelon, Better Together is making a difference through the support and partnership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. 

The following personal story of a young mother's progress, as she ensures the development of her young children while furthering her own career, encapsulates the community involvement that is the cornerstone of Better Together's success.

Young mother Sarah regularly attends Neve Alonim’s Early Childhood Enrichment Room with her two children, aged three and six. Although she has a full-time job caring for babies at a day care center, the family's financial position is still precarious.

Sarah first heard about the room through the neighborhood's Community Center. When staff conducted interviews with residents prior to setting up the room, Sara stepped up and joined the Mothers’ Forum, which was established to ensure that Better Together's early learning programs fit the needs of the neighborhood's preschoolers.

Three times a week, Sarah brings her children to family literacy programs at the Playroom, and they both already feel at home there. While there, she formed a close bond with the staff, who have become a source of much needed support.

Moreover, Sarah is now employed there to run regular creative activities for parents and children. She has also recruited several new families to the Playroom, and as a member of the Mothers' Forum she is now participating in the course to develop community leadership.

As a result of her involvement with Better Together, Sarah is rapidly becoming a key figure in the neighborhood. While making an invaluable contribution to activities for very young children and their parents, she is increasing her family's income and gaining valuable, career-enhancing skills.

November 15, 2011

Bringing Health Awareness to Hungary’s Women

Melinda, a local Roma volunteer professional (left)
and Marianna, JDC’s WHEP Program Manager in
Hungary (middle), share information about breast
cancer with a Roma woman at a Health Day in Pécs.
 Klara, a 52-year-old banker and mother of two, clearly remembers the day she attended the breast cancer screening that led to her diagnosis. It was brilliantly sunny and she had a full afternoon of client meetings scheduled. There were 17 women in line ahead of her to have a mammogram. As she turned to leave, a screening assistant called after her, encouraging her to reschedule after work hours to ensure she didn't put off the exam another year. She returned at the end of the week and three days later got a call asking her to come in for another mammogram—and a biopsy.

Klara had learned about and done self-examinations regularly, but the tumor was so deep in her breast she couldn't possibly have discovered it if the mobile screening project—a special JDC initiative to provide underserved women in remote areas throughout Hungary with access to health services—hadn't come to her town that year.

A prominent part of JDC's Women's Health Empowerment Program (WHEP)—currently active in Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and Montenegro—the mobile screening is integral to the Equal Chance Against Cancer campaign initiated by JDC in partnership with the Open Society Foundations' Roma Initiatives and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The campaign's Equal Chance Health Days have provided breast cancer screenings for over 4,500 women in 42 locations across Hungary since 2007.

The campaign strives to change the attitudes of health professionals and the majority population towards the disease and give underserved women, including the Roma and women with disabilities, access to critically needed information and services. JDC's education initiatives, awareness-raising activities, and health services reach disadvantaged women in some of the country's most remote areas, and end up saving hundreds of lives each year.

Klara considers herself lucky to have had her tumor discovered. It was spreading so aggressively that undiagnosed she would have died in three months. Instead she underwent surgery, followed by chemotherapy treatment and a successful recovery.

"Early detection can mean the difference between life and death," says Marianna Jó, JDC Program Manager of WHEP in Hungary. "Unfortunately, there is a 10-year gap in life expectancy between majority and minority populations in our country. It is estimated that Roma women are three times more likely to die from carcinogenic diseases than non-Roma." Marianna explains that this phenomenon is perpetuated by misconceptions surrounding the illness, and a lack of access to health services among populations living in remote areas in deep poverty and facing long-standing discrimination.

The following year, when the mobile screening unit came back to Klara's town, she volunteered her support and experience to help newly diagnosed women. She'd fought the cancer on her own because her husband was too devastated to be able to help; now she had renewed strength. "I could explain to women how to use a prosthesis, where to find psychological support…all those things I did not know when I got ill," said Klara. "I was so happy I could help these women, to listen to them and to their needs."

This peer support concept inspired a new program JDC is launching this month for underserved women, particularly the Roma, in Hungary in partnership with the Open Society Institute. The new Mothers Centers for disadvantaged women in the countryside will provide information about and access to public services; develop community through common activities; and contribute to the Roma women's active citizenship in Hungary.

Melinda, a civil society professional from the local Roma association who helped bring the mobile screening unit to Klara's town, will volunteer as a coordinator for their Mothers Center. She sees it a unique opportunity for Roma women to meet, discuss, and deal with issues that are relevant for them as mothers and women, as individuals and as a group. For example, she and Klara are focusing on making their Center health-oriented and inviting women from their Roma community to discuss topics like women's issues, diet, disease prevention, and diabetes.

Melinda believes openness and authenticity are critical to this empowerment program. "We solicit the needs of women in the community before we start the program. They see that the community house is for them, that we do these things for them, so that their lives get better," she explains. "These women do not get to go anywhere. They go to the supermarket to do the shopping, they see the public nurse or the doctor with their kids, but they have nothing else, only the household."

That's what makes each of the four centers such a critical resource: they will provide a forum for women to raise issues and share concerns about their health, their children, financial management, and domestic issue. "We think that women's health, child-care, early childhood development, and school issues are their main interests. They want to be good mothers, so that they can raise good children. This is what they see in us—an opportunity to learn and be better."

November 10, 2011

Are YOU the next Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service?

JDC is currently recruiting for the 2012 – 2013 Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellowship in International Jewish Service -- the premiere opportunity for engaging young Jewish leaders in the work of the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization.

Who? JDC is looking for the best young Jewish thinkers and doers -- writers, artists, policy shapers, business innovators, and community builders -- there is no single profile that fits. We are looking for leaders in their field who have the promise to influence the future of Jewish life and the world.

What? JDC’s Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship is a one-of-a-kind, paid, professional development opportunity to live and work in overseas locations where JDC is active and engage with the inner workings of the organization.

Where? JDC works in over 70 countries around the world.

When? Fellowship begins in September 2012 with an orientation period at JDC’s headquarters in New York, continues with two or more overseas assignments, and concludes in New York in September 2013.


Deadline: December 30, 2011

Qualifications? Master’s degree or equivalent; Professional achievement in the candidate’s chosen career; Exceptional leadership and communication skills; Strong interest in international Jewish affairs and public service.

Email to submit a letter of intent, or for more information.

November 8, 2011

From Steve Schwager, JDC CEO

I spent all last week in Israel, visiting both new and old JDC programs. I also had numerous meetings with various Israeli government officials. So you can probably predict my next comment to you, which is that I wrote this column in "an old, familiar place" – 37,000 feet in the air while flying back to Newark Airport.

On the government side, I met with the Cabinet Secretary and Director General of the Prime Minister's office. We discussed JDC's upcoming 100th anniversary Board meeting in Israel and how the government would officially recognize JDC's work. These sessions were very meaningful; the government officials were very supportive and spoke glowingly of our mission in general, as well as our specific programs.

I then met with the new Commanding General of the IDF's Home Front Command, which is responsible for protecting the citizens of Israel during war or terrorist attacks. The General had come to be briefed on our work and asked JDC to partner with the IDF if Israel is once again faced with war. Specifically, he was impressed with our networks of volunteers, including our 200-plus Supportive Communities for the elderly and disabled, our 20-plus Young Adult Centers, and the local ESHELs that have been established for Israel's seniors. Formal coordination procedures are now in place and regularly tested. JDC is a full partner with the State of Israel's response system to ensure that the most vulnerable citizens will be helped in times of crisis.

The third official I met with was the Deputy Accountant General of the Finance Ministry who is responsible for reviewing programs in the social services. He told me how amazed and impressed he was with the scope and the number of cities in which JDC works. He also expressed his appreciation for our partnership and the unique contributions that we have made and continue to make to the State.

During all three visits, what was truly rewarding was being able to clearly see the esteem in which JDC is held by these senior officials.

On the program side, I visited various sites and enjoyed rewarding and interesting conversations.

In Jerusalem, I visited a prepatory program for young adults who are going into the army. Those of us who do not live in Israel typically believe that every Israeli young adult—whether male or female—goes into the army right after high school. But the 20 young people I met in this program changed my view forever. These were young adults coming from the kibbutz movement or small towns. They felt that they were not ready for the army and needed more time to mature before serving. So during this year after high school, they were taking part in this preparatory program in which they studied about Israel and Judaism and did volunteer work with the elderly or children. This was a meaningful approach that reflected both maturation and a dedication to the State of Israel; I saw these young adults as a new generation of pioneers who will continue to build Israel.

We also visited the Arab village of Sachnin in the north of Israel. The village is home to 27,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs who are among the most vulnerable citizens of Israel. Each division in JDC has established programs in Sachnin that address the needs of this population. We have separate programs for the elderly, the disabled, children at risk, the unemployed, etc. Until a few years ago, each program operated independently. JDC-Israel has now implemented a more holistic model by appointing a senior staffer to coordinate our efforts. Evaluations by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute show that this change has had a meaningful impact both on JDC and on the local municipalities. While I was there, I met the mayor, who was deeply grateful for all our work.

I always talk about how important it is to see our programs first-hand, but I must admit that it is also very rewarding to hear from our partners that what JDC is doing most certainly makes a difference. Irv and I are very grateful to the Israeli government for its partnership and support; and we are grateful both to the JDC professionals and to the volunteers who make it all happen.

November 4, 2011

A Homecare Visit That Restores Dignity and Hope

For Irina, a 79-year-old widow living in poverty
in Melitopol, Ukraine, JDC-supported Hesed
services are a lifeline. “I have no one else to rely
on. I am so grateful to the people at Hesed for
their care and attention.”
 While just a teenager, Irina, now age 79, witnessed her family’s vibrant Jewish community in the Urals region of Russia decimated in World War II, their synagogue go up in flames, and the Jewish cemetery destroyed. Still, Irina persevered. Undeterred by the anti-Semitism and later hardships she faced during years of communism, she graduated from university and moved to the Far East to begin her 34-year career as a French teacher. The only thing she has to show for that now is a pension that puts her below the poverty line.

Living on less than $112 a month, Irina depends on JDC’s Hesed social welfare center in Melitopol, Ukraine, to provide food; medicines; heating fuel and blankets to protect her through the winter; and weekly home care visits from Yelena who cooks, cleans, and bathes Irina—basic tasks that would be impossible to accomplish alone.

For Irina, it is a good day when she doesn’t suffer a mild stroke. It’s a bad day when she lies shivering on her bed because her decomposed ancient firewood heater can’t protect her from the bitter Ukrainian winters. Every day is a struggle for survival—one she faces on her own since the deaths of her husband and son. Her loving marriage was cut abruptly short when her husband died in 1959 of radiation exposure from his service as a career medical officer in the Soviet Army. And Irina watched her only son—the joy of her life—succumb to leukemia before his 28th birthday.

Today Irina fights severe, deforming arthritis with every step she takes along the creaking floor of her home. She lives alone and isn’t able to venture outside its four walls—except when Yelena comes.

On a rare bright morning when Irina feels strong enough, she accompanies Yelena to the local supermarket where she can choose her own groceries and purchase them with dignity using a special food debit card provided by Hesed.

All that Irina has left in the world are childhood memories of celebrating Jewish holidays with her large family, and some tattered photos of her son. These have been her only source of comfort through ensuing decades of heartache. But today she has Yelena; today she has dignity.

* Vital relief and homecare services are reaching 165,000 of the most frail and vulnerable Jewish elderly across the former Soviet Union thanks to the invaluable support of the Jewish Federations of North America, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Maurice and Vivenne Wohl Charitable Foundation, World Jewish Relief (UK), and a generous new gift from Bonita Trust.

November 2, 2011

Empowering Young Adults: Young Adult Parliaments

Although nearly 40% of Israelis are young adults, few opportunities exist for their social and civic involvement. JDC's Young Adult Parliaments aim to change this situation by providing young adults with the means to take effective action to improve their communities. Dimona is just one community that has benefited from this injection of young energy and compassion.

The residents of Dimona – an impoverished town in the south of Israel – struggle to cope with the limited local resources and services. The town’s young adults who choose to build their future in Dimona find it hard to improve their environment, leaving them feeling powerless and disconnected.

Dimona’s Young Adult Parliament has changed this. As the town’s young people have come to understand community needs and how to work with local leadership, they have led focused lobbying and civic action campaigns and brought about concrete solutions.

For example, in less than a year they have transformed local transport services – solving a longstanding obstacle for residents. When the parliament set out to address the lack of bus routes offered in the city it faced indifference from the management of the national bus company and opposition from local taxi drivers. Ignoring these obstacles, young parliament members engaged the public, obtaining over 3,000 signatures of support from local residents in a petition sent to the National Minister of Transportation. Their lobbying effort resulted in a five-fold increase in the number of bus lines and routes, saving impoverished residents significant costs in taxi fares.

Young Adult Parliaments empower and engage 18-30 year olds to take active roles in the social, economic and political life of their communities. Parliaments bring together a representative group of local young adults from a given geographical area to address key issues on the public agenda, from education and employment, to housing and transportation. Parliament members act as a lobby and social action group to improve the quality of life for themselves and their communities.