Monday, March 24, 2014

Why "Limiting Debate on Israel Will Only Hurt Us" Is Wrong

By Russell F. Robinson, Jewish National Fund CEO

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), and author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013) is someone I deeply respect. However, his latest opinion (“Limiting Debate on Israel Will Only Hurt Us” The Jewish Week, Feb. 4), is a perspective, if acted upon, that has the potential to actually hurt our community.

In his desire to encourage more open dialogue on Israel, Rabbi Schwarz would like the college campus organization Hillel to reform its guidelines and allow overtly anti-Israel groups the opportunity to speak under the Hillel banner. Schwarz believes that preventing such contrarians to talk will actually drive young Next Gen Jews away from us. 

Such a notion is not only unbelievable, it is just plain irresponsible!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sderot Indoor Playground Provides Safe Haven in Times of Crisis

By Patricia Golan

Despite the sudden resumption of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza late last week, school children in southern Israel turned out en masse in festive costumes for Purim holiday celebrations this past weekend, especially at the Indoor Recreation Center where Purim holiday music blasted from the loudspeakers, adding to a fun atmosphere that helped alleviate the stress of recent days.

"Purim has helped us forget the sirens we have been hearing in recent days,” said a resident. “I can only hope it stays that way."

In the days leading up to Purim, more than 60 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip rained down across southern Israel, sending thousands of residents scrambling into bomb shelters. It was the most intense barrage since a cease-fire in 2012 ended eight days of cross-border violence.

In Sderot – a town located less than a mile from Gaza and well-known for being targeted by Gaza rocket launchers – residents were given the go-ahead from the Home Front to hold their Purim festival in town and outdoors. Until the last-minute decision by defense authorities, Sderot’s children at least had a unique alternative to staging the Purim parade outdoors: hold festivities in their one-of-a-kind, heavily fortified indoor children's playground.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Alternative Break Reporting from the Negev

By Emma Levich

Sitting here back here in my room at the wonderful Kibbutz Kramim, I can't believe our second day has already flown by; we have done so much, yet have many more amazing stories to hear and sights to see.

Yesterday was our first day of volunteering, and we worked with an organization called Earth's Promise, an organization that strives to assist Ethiopian immigrants adjust to life in Israel, culturally and socially. One specific project they have is growing a community garden where Ethiopian families can grow various crops and vegetables to be used in their daily life. The purpose of this garden is to give something to the families who are new to the land of Israel, something that they can call their own. This also provides them with a certain comfort, by growing crops they are familiar with.

I was so impressed by this organization and their various projects, especially by the passion that encompassed everyone who worked there. Throughout spending the day there, it was obvious to see how the presence of this community garden brought people together, in the most positive ways. The fact that I can say that I was personally a part of this mission is extremely rewarding, and something that I will cherish forever.

As the sunrise welcomed the second day of the trip, I woke up eager (and hungry) for another day of learning, volunteering, and experiencing new things. After a delicious breakfast, we were off to our next destination in the Negev to volunteer on a farm owned by Yossi, who makes organic olive oil. Throughout the early afternoon, we helped Yossi clean up shrub and small bushes from the strips of land where the crops grow. Hearing his story about his farm and the various difficulties of owning a farm in the middle of the desert was truly eye opening; I had no idea the Negev had farms, let alone whole communities dedicated to cultivating the land. Yossi talked about how he farms *with* nature and goes with the natural flow of the environment versus against it -- this is how his farm survives.

Learning about his farm and the amounts of intensive work and effort he has to put in to maintain his crops was very interesting and I only wish him the best; he is a prime example of a dedicated farmer proving to the world that it really is possible to survive in the desert. After one of the most amazing lunches I've ever had, we headed back out on the road to our next destinations: the Ramon Crater, Ben Gurion's gravesite, and the city of Arad.

Alternative Spring Breaker reports from the Negev

By Samantha Mellman

It is the end of day 2 of our week long journey in the Negev desert on JNF ASB. Yesterday we volunteered at an Ethiopian urban farm in Be’er  Sheva which is maintained by an organization called Earth's Promise and today we spent time at Yossi's farm in Kerem Behar Hanegev.  I did not realize that small family farms can not always afford the tools and technology to cultivate and clean their land in a relatively quick and simple way. Our group had to rake weeds, nail benches, and shovel mulch with our bare hands. This was the first time I have volunteered on farms, and even though my arms and back are a bit sore I can sleep in our kibbutz happy knowing that we made a difference.

In two days, I have learned so much more about the Negev then I ever knew before. I went on Birthright three years ago and we visited the desert for one day. I thought all there was to see was Mt. Masada and the Dead Sea. I figured no one else lives here besides Bedouins. I was proven wrong.  From listening to various speakers on our trip I have come to understand that the Negev is in an ongoing process of development. This was my first visit to Be'er Sheva and when we stood on a newly built bridge at Be'er Sheva River Park I saw the promise this city has to be a thriving metropolis like Tel Aviv.

Creating New Opportunities for the Next Generation in the Arava

By Patricia Golan

Housing Fund Group photo in Arava at Hatezva Moshav.jpg

In the Central Arava at Hatzeva Moshav where new houses are to be built:
Back row L-R: Elliot Nory, Jeff Schwartz, Yehuda Richman, Rick Krosnick.
Front row L-R: Ravit Greenberg, Rubin Pikus, Noa Zer, Marc Kelman, Joe Wolfson.
Here’s a startling fact: it’s more expensive to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv today than in Manhattan. The housing situation in the rest of central Israel is not much better – overcrowded and expensive – and well beyond the means of average Israelis, especially young families. Social unrest throughout the country two years ago added further voice to argue for greater economic and housing opportunities, and shed light on the ongoing struggle the middle-class experiences to obtain a better quality of life.
The situation has been referred to as “one of Israel’s biggest political issues of all time.” So the question remains, where can young Israelis, who are contemplating the prospects for a better life, move?
The Arava Desert region is not the first place they would think of. Yet, Jewish National Fund (JNF)’s Housing Development Fund, comprised of a dedicated group of American Zionists and business leaders, is looking to attract people to move to a place that, for most Israelis, may seem to be the end of the world. This new initiative is part of JNF’s Blueprint Negev campaign, which was launched 12 years ago to help develop the Negev Desert in a sustainable manner to make it home to Israel’s next generation.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A legend and his son's legacy

By Abby Leviss, JNF director of grants and foundations

Doron and Didi Almog are amazing people whom I've known for nearly seven years now. Their son Eran, who was born with severe developmental disabilities, died suddenly 7 years ago at the age of 23. It's hard for me to imagine that they were so early in their grief when I met them. They were and are amazing people.

General Almog was the first person on the ground in Entebbe in 1976 - part of a clandestine mission to rescue 108 hostages whose plane had been hijacked and who were being help captive in Uganda. He was the commander of that mission and is a celebrated hero in Israel.  He felt led by his deeply rooted commitment to never leaving a wounded soldier in the field. Several years earlier, during the Yom Kippur war, Doron's brother was left bleeding on the battlefield for days. He was returned to his family already dead. The hostages were to him the wounded soldiers. He would not leave then behind.

When Eran was born, he felt the same. He and his wife knew that they would never leave him behind. Their commitment was to give him a beautiful life, to make sure that he could experience everything to the fullest in a way that matched his needs and abilities. He and his wife recognized right away that there was a stigma. That the other parents would proudly brag about their children. "Of course they thought their children were great!" Doron said, because they belonged to their parents! Their children were considered an extension of their parent's own greatness. There is ego in the pride.

But what do the parents of a severely developmentally disabled child have to brag about? Eran could not feed himself, or go to the bathroom by himself, or even say one word - "not even Aba (father)". But the love a parent feels for their child is unconditional. Those things should not matter. "These children are the most innocent in society - full of love. They cannot be left behind." Doron set about building a village that would accommodate special needs young people and adults - not a sterile institution but a community with green grass, shaded areas to relax, a multitude of special therapies (pet therapy, equine therapy, art therapy, music therapy, hydrotherapy). The place is called Aleh Negev - a place that they believed Eran would live out the many years of his life.  But that dream would never be realized.  Eran died suddenly and unexpectedly as a young man. People talk about Doron's son who was developmentally disabled a lot at JNF, but they nearly never speak about the fact that he's been left grieving - a bereaved parent to a special needs child.

Reflections on a JNF Staff Mission to Israel

This past week, 45 members of the Jewish National Fund's USA staff participated in a staff mission to Israel to see projects, participate in team building, and become even more energized by the important work that we do. This post was submitted by Jodi Perlmuth Popofsky, senior campaign executive, Greater New York.  

Getting To Israel
Before my flight began, passenger became ill and had to get off the plane.  This was followed by a search for his baggage, and so our on time departure was not in the cards. My hopes of getting to Tel Aviv in time to meet the LA contingent (and their van to Be'er Sheva) were dashed.  Instead, after a decent amount of sleep on the plane, I got myself from Ben Gurion airport to the train and to my hotel in Be'er Sheva just about 10 minutes after the other 40 or so people in my group.  
Start to the Day
I met four of my colleagues at 6 AM the next morning and we ran for approximately 4 miles - it was a lot of fun and was followed by a great breakfast, then onto he busses to begin a big day of touring.  
Giv'ot Bar
First stop was the community called Giv'ot Bar where we saw a real community in the desert, built with JNF support.  What was originally barren desert has been transformed - first with an idea, then with trailers, and now with real houses. Demand for these houses is so high that a third phase of development is in the works.
Aleh Negev
Upon arrival at Aleh Negev, a state of the art rehabilitative community in the middle of the desert, we were met by its founder, Major General Doron Almog. In my estimation, Doron may be the person with the biggest heart I have ever met.
Doron told us how Aleh Negev invites prisoners to engage with the disabled residents as part of the therapeutic process. This has a positive impact on both the criminals, whose actions were, by definition, intentional and conscious, and the residents, who suffer with disabilities borne with neither consciousness nor intention.  Seeing  the smiles on children being cared for lovingly and individually was moving beyond words.  Helping to strengthen parents who feel shame about their child's disability and helping them to love proudly is a part of Aleh Negev and an important step in legitimizing the disabled population. If Gandhi was correct that a society ijudged by the way it treats its weakest members, then Israel is a stellar example of humanity.

Our next stop was the Sderot reservoir,  where we learned about the way in which Israel recycles and reclaims much of its water.  From there we went to the Sderot indoor playground, which doubles as a bomb shelter giving children a place to play, safe from attack.

Wadi Attir
After lunch at Sderot, we went to the town of Hura, to hear the Mayor speak about the Wadi Attir project. Essentially, this project represents the collaboration among several Bedouin communities, university scientists, the Israeli government, and JNF.  By embracing the farming and agricultural practices that are part of the Bedouin culture, the project seeks to extend the production of herbal remedies and skin care products made by the Bedouins from indigenous plants.  The project includes a Research and Development Center and will add about 70 jobs to the area; the development spawned, however, will be far greater than the immediate jobs created because it will improve the Bedouins'  vocational opportunities. By integrating the Bedouins into Israeli society in a manner that is consistent with the best aspects of their culture, Wadi Attir ensures that they will retain their identities without being left behind by mainstream Israeli society.  What an amazing example of cooperation between people otherwise thought to be at an impasse.

Be'er Sheva River Park
Next stop was the Be'er Sheva River Park where we saw the fruits of some of JNF's efforts.  This dried up river bed was previously home to layer upon layer of crushed and abandoned cars  -  a huge wasteland of metal and garbage.  It is now a shining example of urban renewal and a tourist destination. We also saw the recently opened 12,000 seat amphitheater and beautiful Pipes Bridge. Very soon there will be a 20+ acre man-made lake using recycled water.

Abraham's Well
Seeing Abraham's Well just before going to dinner was the perfect conclusion to the day.  This well, the site where Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech, represents the Jewish people's ties to the land of Israel. Like everything else that we visited, it is part of Blueprint Negev -- JNF's bold initiative to build communities in the Negev, ensuring the growth and sustainability of the nation of Israel.