Monday, December 31, 2012

Freedom 25


(CNN) -- Driven by desperation, Marina and Lev Furman stepped out of their home in Leningrad and took a 20-minute walk into uncertainty. Trailed by KGB agents, they bundled up and set out in the weak winter light for Palace Square, site of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
They brought signs demanding freedom. And they pushed a baby carriage holding their 9-month-old daughter, Aliyah, who had already proved in her short life that she, too, could handle risks.
Friends told the Furmans they were crazy. Such demonstrations were forbidden in the square. The couple arrived in silent protest and spotted a mob of police and KGB agents waiting for them. Knowing they'd be taken away, they chained themselves to Aliyah's carriage.
For years, they'd asked for permission to leave. Each time, their requests were denied. Told once more they'd never be allowed to go, they were taking a final, calculated, bold stand.
On this day, though, they knew they weren't alone. The date was December 6, 1987.
Some 4,500 miles and a world away, 250,000 people were preparing to protest in Washington as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was preparing for his first White House summit with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The demonstrators wanted to make sure the Furmans and other Soviet Jews weren't forgotten.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrives for his first U.S. summit with President Ronald Reagan.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrives for his first U.S. summit with President Ronald Reagan.
Known as Freedom Sunday, the rally would be the culmination of a decades-long populist campaign the likes of which the world rarely sees. Americans of all stripes were coming together to demand human rights in a faraway land.
Driven by students and housewives and fueled by post-Holocaust guilt, civil rights activism and a newfound sense of Jewish pride after Israel's 1967 Six-Day War victory, the movement brought together Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular.
It's a part of a recent past that's nearly forgotten but that once enjoyed the support of top-tier politicians, congressional wives, Catholic nuns, actors, musicians and civil rights icons, includingMartin Luther King Jr.
If a new coalition has its way, the Soviet Jewry movement will find its place in history books and serve as a model for change in a time when global human rights abuses continue.
"It created a unity that today seems impossible," said Gal Beckerman, a journalist whose 2010 book about the campaign won widespread praise. "For Jews, this was the movement that allowed them to bridge their American and Jewish identities. ... They were flexing their political muscle for the first time."
Their mission was to keep human rights issues on the table for as long as it took, even as diplomats and politicians negotiated nuclear disarmament and trade agreements. In the end, this relentless push would play a part in ending the Cold War, bringing down the Soviet Union and ultimately freeing more than 1.5 million Jews -- many of whom watched from afar as the Jewish state of Israel grew, even while their own religion and identity was suppressed under Communist rule.
Among those working behind the scenes was Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz.
Part of the administration's agenda, when it came to negotiations, was human rights, said Shultz, now 92 and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
"We developed a way to put it that I wrote out and read very slowly," he said, describing talks with his Soviet counterpart. "The gist was ... any society closed and compartmented will fall behind. So you've got to loosen up if you're going to be with it. And part of it is respecting the diversity and views of your population."
Shultz also met with "refuseniks," the term used for anyone who'd been refused exit visas. He attended a Passover seder with them at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And he unofficially slipped a list of refusenik names to his Soviet counterpart, asking for their release.
While Shultz said it would have been inappropriate for him to attend the rally in Washington -- then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was among the speakers -- he loved the idea of Gorbachev turning on his TV to see the crowd on the National Mall. The event helped mark the beginning of the end. The gates were poised to open.
"It had a very positive impact," Shultz said.
Join the March - Freedom 25 was established to assure that the critical lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement are learned by future generations, so they can again be applied to expand the reach of freedom.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Immersed in water

From the Arizona Jewish Post. Friday, December 28, 2012

‘Immersed in water’: Sharon Megdal dives into policy and environmental issues

Sharon Megdal (third from left) toasts “L’Chaim”with desalinated seawater with her colleagues at a desalination plant in Hadera, Israel.
University of Arizona Distinguished Outreach Professor Sharon Megdal grew up in Irvington, N.J., where scarcity of water wasn’t a problem. After she settled in Tucson in the late 1970s, her perspective began to change. “I lived here a dozen years before becoming immersed in water,” says Megdal, who started out as a student of state and local government and holds a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University.
In the mid-1980s, she served on the Arizona Corporation Commission, and in the early 1990s as executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Water District, which no longer exists. She then worked as a consultant, including as an adviser on water resources for Pima County. In 2004, she became co-director of the UA Water Resources Research Center and a professor in the department of soil, water and environmental science.
“We live in a desert area where the focus on water is very important,” says Megdal. “I started reaching out to people interested in collaboration on water policy for personal and professional reasons on my second trip to Israel in 2006. My first trip to Israel was on a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona mission in 1987.”
Following her 2006 trip, Megdal started having conversations with J. Edward Wright, director of the UA Center for Judaic Studies; Robert Verady, UA Udall Center deputy director; and others. “We hosted a workshop on the management of water policy in Arizona, Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2009,” she says. Megdal received grants from the National Science Foundation, U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation and the UA Foundation for that workshop.
For the past three years she’s gone to Israel twice a year to delve into water policy with Israelis and Palestinians. “I’ve gotten heavily into that collaboration,” says Megdal. Last month, Megdal organized a group of professionals from the Southwest to go on a working water management program in Israel. “Through seven days of site visits and interaction with top water experts, we learned about the region’s successes as well as challenges,” she wrote in her quarterly newsletter.
The November program had “the unique focus of professionals [working] on water issues intensively and extensively from a management and policy perspective, not technology or engineering,” notes Megdal. Among their visits, the group found out about the progress being made cleaning up the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, where a deadly bridge collapse at the 1997 Maccabiah Games plunged athletes into polluted water, and also visited the Shafdan Wastewater Treatment Plant. “There are ways to develop solutions for issues that somehow seem insurmountable,” she says, adding that establishing personal contacts makes a difference. “I’ve built great friendships, professional associations over water policy.”
In addition, the Jewish National Fund-USA office in New York helped set up the professionals’ itinerary and “helped connect us to people I didn’t know,” says Megdal. JNF didn’t donate funds for the trip but designated it part of their Positively Israel Campaign, an initiative emphasizing Israeli progress.
Israel approaches its water issues in a centralized way, while “in the United States we handle water problems in a decentralized way,” notes Megdal, adding that pollution is a major problem in both countries.
Aaron Citron at the Banias Falls near the headwaters of the Jordan River in northern Israel.
Aaron Citron, 30, a Tucson native now working as a policy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colo., was one of the 10 professionals who “went to Israel to learn about how Israel is a leader in agricultural and municipal conservation. Israel reuses 80 percent to 90 percent of their water in agriculture,” he told the AJP.
Citron, who holds a J.D. degree from the UA James E. Rogers College of Law, previously worked for three years at the Arizona Land and Water Trust. Growing up, he attended Camp Charles Pearlstein in Prescott for eight years and at age 16 participated on a NFTY in Israel trip, which was organized by the camp. There was a focus on nature and outdoor activities, says Citron, adding that Judaism emphasizes “healing the world and caring for the environment. I believe that had an unconscious influence on me.”
Working on many issues related to the Colorado River — the water source for seven western states including Arizona — is a big part of Citron’s job. “We’re trying to develop conservation measures,” he says, noting a recent Colorado River Basin study that looks at supply and demand in the entire area. “As we use more water,” asks Citron, “what will we do about that in the next 50 years? Before we invest in huge projects we want to focus on local solutions through conservation measures.”
Meanwhile, Megdal notes that Israel’s Jordan River and the Colorado River are both “overallocated,” with reduced flows to the Dead Sea and Mexico’s delta, respectively. “Both areas are concerned with climate change,” she adds. “There are lots of similarities between the Jordan River and the ‘mighty’ Colorado. Both are very stressed river systems.”
“Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges,” edited by Megdal, Robert G. Varady and Susanna Eden, published this month by CRC Press, elaborates on some of what she has learned with her colleagues. But they must continue their efforts, she says.
“I would like to work on resolving trans-boundary water issues between the Palestinian territories and Israel,” says Megdal. “I’ve developed good relations with Palestinians in the West Bank. In many parts of Israel there are major problems with untreated sewage, despite being touted for reuse of its wastewater in agriculture. It’s to everybody’s advantage to fix this. This little part of the world has the wherewithal to fix it. They just have to work together,” she affirms.
“Water is a health and environmental issue that has to be resolved. Untreated waste and pollution don’t recognize political boundaries.”

Thursday, December 27, 2012

JNF weekly tour

Yesterday I spent the day with three families visiting from America who went on our JNF weekly tour to the Northern Negev.  Our JNF tour guide, Shahar Hermlin, and all the participants made the trip so special for me.  Shahar, just has a way with words. I listened to him speak as we drove on the highway leaving Jerusalem on the way to Sderot.  He talked about his grandfather who fought in the War of Independence. As he spoke he used the words like "we fought this war," " we were here in 1948," we saw the establishment of the state of Israel." Although he wasn't alive, he felt the sense of his country. That is something so accurate in the state of Israel. We are a "we" country. There is always this sense of national and group identity.

We got to the Sderot Playground and none of the participants had ever seen the place before. Shahar explained the significance and uniqueness of having a place where kids can play and be safe from rockets. Because of all the rockets that Hamas fires into Israel, JNF built the largest secure indoor recreation center for the children of Sderot.  There was an 11 year old participant that I was talking to and she said to me, "Ilana, this place is so cool." She kept climbing on the climbing wall, shooting the basketball hoops, and just enjoying life. She is too young and had no idea why this place is so special and so sad. For an 11 year old American from New Jersey this is an indoors fun place. For us Israelis we know the necessity of a "rocket-proof" structure in Sderot so that the kids can play, so that parents can throw their kids birthday parties, Bar Mitzvahs, etc and be close enough to shelter areas. Having some sense of normalcy is what has been established through the JNF Playground.

While driving to Beer Sheva to see all the development and plans to make Beer Sheva continue to bloom as envisioned by David Ben Gurion, I learned that in the early 20th century the Ottoman Empire was ruling Palestine and while fighting battles, they would need to fuel their trains.  They therefore burned down so many trees in modern day Israel for building, trains, etc. This is a horrible consequence of colonization and war that I was not aware of.

JNF has planted almost 240 million trees since its creation in 1901. Each time I go on a weekly tour, and discover more and more of Israel, I learn something new and gain a greater appreciation for the work that I am a part of. Trees have little to do with this conflict but unfortunately, they too are affected. Each time a rocket is sent into Israel, damages occur.  In 2006, during the second Lebanon War, some 800,000 trees were lost in the North from Hezbollah Rockets.  Every time you and your family come to Israel and plant a tree, or plant a tree in honor or memory of someone, you are doing your part to build your roots in Israel and we at JNF are so grateful to you for that. 

Ilana Frankel | Administrative Associate - Israel Operations

The JNF weekly tour leaves every Wednesday from Jerusalem.  You can purchase a ticket and join us by clicking HERE.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Greeting from the Central Arava!!!

Russell Robinson
CEO, Jewish National Fund

Shalom Russell, 

It is with a great sense of pride and responsibility that I accepted the honor of becoming the 7th Mayor of the Central Arava Regional Council.

As you know, the local community is comprised of only 800 families even though the area encompasses of 6% of the land of Israel.

The story of the Moshavim in the Arava symbolizes in many ways the establishment of the state of Israel - the story of an idealistic group of young people and their efforts to follow David Ben Gurion's vision of settling the Negev, their struggle with the various challenges along the way and their success, against all odds, to make the desert blossom.  Today we are proud to have a small but thriving community that persists in its mission to realize Ben Gurion's vision, despite all the obstacles.

None of this would have happened without support and your dedication towards the development of the community.  As a second generation Arava pioneer, I am strongly committed to following in the footsteps of the Arava founders, and with your partnership to lead the community towards a bright future.

It is our vision to further develop and populate the Arava while preserving its unique and wild character.  We believe that the Central Arava will attract new residents to the region, encourage entrepreneurship and creativity,  and provide the community with opportunities for sustainable living.  The Central Arava Council will strive to preserve the region's ecology and strengthen the community.  We see a great importance in the further development of innovative agriculture in desert, thus positioning Central Arava as a national and international role model.  I believe that together we will continue making a difference to people's lives, offering the founders as well as new families a real opportunity and a home in the Arava.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and the Jewish National Fund for your friendship, partnership and ongoing efforts towards the development of Central Arava the place where I was born raised and proud to call my home.

Looking forward to working with you,

Your sincerely,

Eyal Blum, PhD

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Trip That Took Me

Growing up, the most difficult part of being Jewish was not the fact that I was the only Jew in my group of friends, or that I had to tell my soccer coach I would not be making our last game because it was on Yom Kippur. Instead, the most challenging part of my Jewish childhood was staying completely silent in my room until 1:00pm on Sundays so that my mother would lose track of the time and forget that I should be in Hebrew School.

For me, Hebrew School doused the flickering flames of my Jewish fervor. I felt more identification with my heritage strolling down the kosher aisle of my nearest grocery store. I had no interest in an activity that made me sit indoors on sunny weekends and read a language backwards. These days, as I fill out the papers to complete my upcoming Aliyah to Israel, I realize those Hebrew classes could have come in handy.

So I know what you are thinking. How did a Hebrew School drop-out end up saying this past year--and truly mean it--B’Shana Haba’ah bi Yerushalem (Next Year in Jerusalem) at the Passover Seder table? Or, even better, that after a stint in Jerusalem, she is headed to live and raise her family in Sderot?

To be honest, I can’t believe it myself. Sure, the Birthright spell took over once my body remained magically afloat in the Dead Sea. Yet, my need to live in Israel stems from a reason far greater than just getting a chance to stroll through the outdoor markets again and feel the Mediterranean sand between my toes. I needed to make a difference—for myself and for Israel—until I was ready to call the land of milk and honey my home.

In the winter of 2008, I travelled with The Jewish National Fund’s Alternate Winter Break. The program offered the opportunity to go to Israel instead of college spring break hot spots like Cabo as well as do community service for the Jewish country instead of taking full advantage of the all-inclusive Mexican resort. It was a chance to see the “real” Israel, not just through a tour bus, but through hands-on experiences.

In order to participate on the trip, each participant is required to raise $900 for an indoor playground in Sderot, a JNF initiative to provide the children of Sderot with the "luxury" of playtime without the worry of rocket attacks. The building was constructed to remain safe no matter what was happening beyond the playground walls, providing these young people the security I took for granted when I was growing up.

Though I used the fundraising site that JNF provided, I noticed that my friends and family actually needed little explanation on why they should donate to the Sderot Indoor Playground. It was the first time that I understood the meaning of the global Jewish community and the powerful connection linking us together. Every push of a shovel and swipe of a paintbrush I made while on this JNF program brought me closer to Israel and made me feel that I was authentically part of the Jewish community.

JNF took us to Israeli locations passed over by the typical tourist, enabling us to see a broad range of towns and villages in the Negev such as Yerucham and Arad. We worked together as true Zionists, tearing unwanted weeds from the soil in order to make room for the delicate new roots of the tree we were planting. We learned that our hours spent painting the bomb shelters with decorative colors encouraged the local residents and made them feel less isolated. We could see for ourselves the difference we made by serving freshly prepared meals at the nearby soup kitchens. Together, through our work, we became one with Israel and with each other. As the mayor of Yerucham said when he spoke to us one night in the desert, “You came here with Israel on your minds, you will get Israel on your hands, and you will leave with Israel in your heart”.

He was right. I've saved the work gloves I made muddy working during that winter break in Israel. They remind me of how thrilling it was to make a difference and to be part of building a great nation. With Israel in my heart, I was ready to begin my path to make Israel my home and Sderot my neighborhood. After working in Israel, being a Jew no longer meant pretending to be asleep to escape Hebrew School. It meant exerting all my effort to be part of something important, extending into the future-- our future.

Sarah Cahners Hindman
July, 2011

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We Couldn't Have Said It Better Ourselves

See how JNF's work is making a
difference in Israel every day. 

Jewish National Fund is Your Voice in Israel

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bedouin life - a "new" model of sustainable living

While "sustainability" is the environmental buzz word of the day, the Negev Bedouins have been part of this trend since their earliest days.  Their nomadic lifestyle has roots in making the most out of the dry regional landscape in which they live.  Bedouins have been practicing sustainable farming and agricultural techniques in the desert environment for thousands and thousands of years.  There is so much we can learn from their model and now JNF is working in partnership with the Bedouin municipality of Hura to do just that!

Bedouin practices have historically relied on herding sheep for meat, milk, and clothing - using every part of the animal, letting no part go to waste.  They have collected, saved and planted ancient seeds, some which are no longer available otherwise, which are favorable to the desert's unique growing challenges.

Since the urbanization of Negev Bedouin life at the start of the Ottoman rule, most have lost their connection to these ancient practices as their lifestyles have been more "modernized" and therefore less sustainable.  Project Wadi Attir is a collaboration meant to get Bedouins back to their ancient practices and to serve as a model for desert communities worldwide.

Jewish National Fund is working with the Bedouin Hura Municipal Council on this truly unique and empowering collaboration.  The project was designed by The Sustainability Laboratories and the local population to help bring back these ancient techniques with the purpose of creating community based enterprise combining Bedouin aspirations, values and experience with sustainability principles, modern day science and cutting edge technologies.

The core of the enterprise will involve raising several hundred goats and sheep, to produce organic meat and dairy products. In addition, a significant portion of the farm will be dedicated to the cultivation of a wide variety of medicinal plants that have been valued by generations of Bedouins for their health benefits. The medicinal plant operation will showcase and preserve Bedouin knowledge of natural remedies and will produce a line of healing and body care products.  Project Wadi Attir is also re-introducing the production of highly nutritious, desert hardy, indigenous vegetables which once formed an important part of the Bedouin diet, using the ancient seeds that have been saved over many generations.  In addition to growing these native vegetables on the site, a seed bank will be created and a women-led program will be launched to help spread the cultivation of vegetable gardens on family managed plots - empowering local women and girls!

Imagine - a project that connects urban Bedouins with their traditional practices, that generates new income, and re-introduces a healthier lifestyle into the community, all while serving as a model for communities in similar landscapes worldwide!  The project has attracted many collaborators, including the Bedouin community members, university scientists and researches, local non-profit organizations, a nearby kibbutz, government agencies and private sector companies. Project Wadi Attir has recently been established as the first ever, Bedouin agricultural cooperative in Israel. 

Sustainability is not a new concept!  We have much to learn from cultures, like the Bedouins, who are experts in conserving the small resources available to them and making the best use of their sparse environment!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

LOTEM and the JNF – Here for the People of Southern Israel / Aviv Paz

As someone who has been through the 2006 Lebanon War in one of Israel’s northern cities (Carmiel, which suffered some 160 rocket hits), none were as happy as I was at the idea of hosting residents from southern Israel at LOTEM's Farm at  Emek HaShalom, and at the possibility to make their time a pleasant one.
מכינים עבודת יצירה בכיתה הנופית בעמק
When operation Pillar of Defense began, we were contacted by our longstanding partners at the JNF, who inquired about our needs, for the purpose of assisting residents of the South at this hard time. That very day we requested JNF’s assistance in taking groups of children and adults with special needs from the South on stress-relieving day trips and activities, away from the battle zones. Gladly, JNF responded immediately, and we were able to take seven groups of children, adolescents and adults out on a restful activity in nature, within a day’s notice.
The first group that visited us at Emek HaShalom, near Yokne’am, was very diverse, and included children at kindergarten age, children in elementary school, adolescents and parents. Some children and youths even arrived without their parents. They didn’t ask for much – all they wanted was a short break from the harsh reality surrounding them at home. Success was not guaranteed, as visitors’ faces showed their worries, stress and fears. The young children cooperated fully, and clang to the olive workshop products without letting go, as if receiving an empowering force. Just before the group got on to the vehicles taking them back to Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, where they were staying at the time, we managed to take a short trip to Forer Spring, and hear more of their daily nightmarish routine in the South. We bid them farewell wishing them peace and quiet.
The next day a group of boys studying in grades 8-12 from Kedma Youth Village, came to Emek HaShalom by foot, after walking from Emi Spring, passing HaShofet Stream. Following an olive workshop that included producing oil at the olive press, the boys made pita bread at a field oven (taboon), a rich vegetable salad and tahini, with sweet krembo for dessert. A bit of small talk, a short goodbye, and on to the buses they went.
In Jerusalem we were visited by five more groups of adolescents and adults with mental disabilities, residing in hostels at Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva. All groups expressed endless gratitude for the opportunity to go out on a trip away from the battle area, at a time of pressure, stress and anxiety, which only amplified their everyday emotional difficulties.
The last group that came on a trip was one of women from a battered women’s shelter in Be’er Sheva. A day before JNF’s approach, the shelter’s manager at Be’er Sheva sent us a heartrending letter, pleading to take the women and children from the shelter on an outing away from the battle zones. In her words “it’s not enough that these women suffered violence at home for years, they are now coping with violence on a national scale, and the tension at the shelter is mounting…” Gladly, we were able to provide them with a day of joy and repose in the Jerusalem Mountains.
הולכים לעין פורר שבנחל השופט
Emek HaShalom, the farm on which most of the activities during the fighting took place, stands true to its  Hebrew name – "a valley of peace". Our purpose at LOTEM is to provide peace, quiet, rest and tranquility to all who knock on our doors. We had the pleasure to give enjoyable experiences to these groups, who experienced difficult times living under routine rocket and missile barrages. We hope we succeeded in our mission, if only for a few hours, and pray for quieter and more tranquil days.
It should also be noted that thanks to JNF’s commitment and help, the Christian Embassy in Israel also joined in assisting LOTEM’s activity, enabling us to continue providing days of repose for the children of the South throughout the year. Although the military operation had come to its close, it must be kept in mind that its physical and mental consequences will sadly remain for a long time.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank all supporters at the JNF, who made it possible for us to carry out these activities.

44 candles

Do you remember where you were 2 years ago for the first day of Chanukah?  It's been two years since the first day of Chanukah 2010. A day when we light a fire in the menorah. You see - fire is a great thing. It brings light. We light candles to welcome the holy Shabbat. We light the menorah to commemorate the miracles. We light the fire place to stay warm on cold winter nights..... But two years ago on the first day of Chanukah another fire started. It was the first day of Chanukah 2010 when the Carmel fire began. It is two years since 44 people lost their lives and 44 families were shattered.  
Chanukah is a time to remember and celebrate the miracles. In those days and today G-d makes miracles. In this generation we have so much to be grateful for and so much to celebrate as well. The miracle of having a homeland. The miracle of being free..... And there are still many miracles that we perform together every day. 

We have made Israel a safer place over the last two years. We have purchased many new fire trucks and life saving equipment. We are currently building a new fire station on Mount Carmel which could have prevented the fire.  There are still many miracles we need to work on. It's two years later. We remember the 44 people who lost their lives and we promise to continue to work for a better tomorrow. 

Did you ever realize how many candles we light on Chanukah?  Take a look at your Chanukah candle boxes. There are 44 candles in total, lit over 8 days. Wow. 44 people lost theirs lives in the carmel fire.  Let us light 44 candles and remember them. 

From our JNF family to yours, Chanukah sa'meach!!! Thanks for the miracles. 
The Kotlers

Friday, December 7, 2012

March of object

March of objects

Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh sits starving in a prison cell in Tehran. Twenty-five years ago that was me. The prison was Leningrad, but the story was the same – a mother of young children punished by a dictatorial regime, yearning for the basic freedoms Americans sometimes take for-granted.
Protesters carry images of Sotoudeh, and clamor for her freedom. Americans did the same for me. And soon after, I was free.
For more than a decade my husband Lev and I had been denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. We were “refuseniks” – and in November 1987 the Soviet government again informed us that we would never be permitted to leave. And so we planned the first unauthorized demonstration on Palace Square– the very site of the 1917 Communist Revolution – knowing full-well that the KGB would be closely monitoring. We brought along our infant daughter Aliyah (named for the Hebrew term for emigrating to Israel).
The timing of our demonstration was not coincidental. For we had learned that our brethren in the United States were preparing a massive demonstration of their own – one that would end up with 250,000 participants, constituting the largest gathering of Jews ever in North America - as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for the first time in Washington, D.C. to meet President Ronald Reagan.
We left our apartment in Leningrad, carrying protest posters and started our 20 minute walk to the Palace Square. As a mother, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I could be placing Aliyah at risk, but impelled by the awareness that her future had to come from a willingness to speak truth to power. As we walked, two KGB cars followed along loudly trying to intimidate us by referring to our family as “objects” and I understood that this captured the essence of what we Jews were in the Soviet Union: Objects of oppression. We walked on proudly knowing that we would be metaphorically linking arms with 250,000 activists in America so that our baby girl would never grow up to be an object of the Soviet regime.
At the Palace Square the KGB and approximately 40 policemen were waiting. We chained ourselves to Aliyah’s carriage so we couldn’t be separated and took out the Soviet constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression. The three of us were quickly arrested and shoved into the bus and taken to prison. Aliyah and I were imprisoned with no food or water for five hours and were separated and kept in the different cells for much of the time. Lev spent 10 days in the prison. It was to be the last of his many arrests. The Soviet officials were bombarded by telegrams from thousands of activists in the United States. Eight days after Lev’s release from prison, on the last day of Hanukkah after more than a decade of trying, we were finally given an exit visa, to leave the Soviet Union.
Twenty five years later, Sotoudeh is imprisoned for daring to speak out against the oppressive and tyrannical Iranian regime and its denial of freedom of expression. Where are the hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding freedom for today’s prisoners of conscience? Twenty five years ago a small group of refuseniks were able to defeat a global superpower and brutal dictatorship because Americans on the other side of the globe fought for our freedom as fiercely as their forebears had fought for their own freedom 200 years earlier.
Theories abound for the reasons that Gorbachev initiated perestroika. I believe that on the Freedom Sunday 25 years ago, a quarter-million activists on the Mall shook Gorbachev.
A quarter of a century later as prisoners of conscience suffer in jail, Ahmadinejad visits the U.N., does media interviews and speaks at universities. Many speak out against him – but not enough. One generation after the incredible success story that was the Soviet Jewry movement, its lessons must be renewed and applied to present circumstances. Regimes that deny basic rights of speech and assembly to their citizens are a threat to freedom everywhere. They must be confronted. And the lesson of my experience is that if they are confronted with sufficient passion and scale, freedom will prevail.
Marina Furman is a former Refusenik and a member of the steering committee of Freedom 25, a coalition focused on teaching the history and lessons of the Soviet Jewry movement to the next generation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nofey Prat

After touring Israel on the President's Society Mission this past November my wife and I visited the community of Nofey Prat.  Nofey Prat is located just east of Jerusalem.  Several years ago we worked with JNF to build a playground for the children of that town in memory of my grandparents, Hedwig and Benno Gutmann, who were killed in the Shoah at Auschwitz in 1943. Since then we have added an adult fitness area and recently the town put in some awnings to shade the playground.  All in all, the park at Nofey Prat looks great.  During our visit we met many members of the community who not only thanked us but ensured us that the park has changed life in the town of Nofey Prat by affording children a place to play and parents to meet while their children are playing.  Because the day of our visit was cold, we were invited to the kindergarten where we met both 4 and 5 year old pupils.  They presented us with many drawings and sang us songs to let us know how appreciative they were of the work done by JNF to improve their lives.  It's been a pleasure for my wife and myself to witness the change we made in Nofey Prat and an honor to work with JNF to transform Israel into a better and better nation.  It's especially heartwarming to see on people's faces in Israel how appreciative they are of the assistance given to them by JNF USA.

Benjamin Gutmann 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Our recent mission to Israel - Bob Levine

Helen and I have just finished another amazing JNF Leadership Tour of Israel. We have visited sites all over the Negev and the Galil and are feeling so proud of JNF's contributions to making Israel "a better place.
Our mission began on Sunday evening with an opening banquet in Jerusalem where we were addressed by the former Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon.  He gave us an overview of Israel and its international relations issues.  He is always a truly dynamic speaker.
PS – the food was delicious.

Monday morning we went to the Jerusalem Headquarters of the Israeli firefighters.  There we saw a demonstration as to how different types of fires have to be handled.  We also saw many different types of trucks and equipment as the Israeli fire department has both urban and forest responsibilities to fight fires.  Several of the trucks bore JNF emblems as they had been donate by JNF USA.  At one point the fire chief asked to be introduced to me and invited me up to his office to show me something.  He said we had something in common.  I was stretching my mind to figure out what that could be.  I was remembering that as a teenager I had almost started a forest fire.  In any event, there on his office wall was a large picture with 4 people.  He was on the left and I was on the right.  We were standing mid-court at a Hapoel Jerusalem basketball game presenting gifts to a seriously ill young man.  This was done by the Jerusalem team but they chose the four of us to make the presentation. What a small world!  The Chief indicated to us that he was seriously understaffed considering the size of Jerusalem, new and old cities.  In fact there is NO fire station in the Old City.  He wants one desperately.

From the fire headquarters we travelled to the Gush Etzion block to see a proposed JNF project which is to refurbish and upgrade the museum in memory of the defenders of the Gush bloc all of whom died in the War of Independence when Arabs and Jordanian troops surrounded the Gush bloc. The Jewish residents fought to the last man but in the end they all perished when they ran out of ammunition. Today wives and children of those early settlers and defenders as well as new residents are living there in a thriving group of communities with industry, agriculture and educational institutions.  After lunch we had four of their representatives talk to us about their politics, industry, culture and agriculture. We returned to Jerusalem to another feast meal at the hotel and a talk by the minister of trade and industry.

Tuesday we drove down south to the Negev.  This has been a prime area for JNF activity in which we have undertaken many projects.  We drove down the new Route 6 superhighway and could see where the railroad from Tel Aviv to Beersheva is now fully two tracked so that trains don't have to be shunted to a siding to pass each other.  The trip can be made one way in 55 minutes. A reasonable commute.

We have seen the amazing Beersheva River project in which JNF is building a lake in the middle of the desert. It will be second in size only to the Kinneret and because of our creative thinking it will use reclaimed water so as not to use precious drinking water. Our group planted Eucalyptus trees along the river banks. We visited the Beersheva Amphitheatre project with 4,000 permanent seats and an additional 8,000 lawn seats which will make it the largest in Israel. It will help be a magnet to bring people to the desert. We then visited the construction sites for several new Negev communities to attract both religious and non-religious people to the Negev.

We also visited the Abraham's Well tourist site still under construction.  Before we left Beersheva we stopped to see the Pipes Bridge, which was funded by a client of mine with some assistance from Helen and me.  It is an amazing site to see. We also visited the development town of Arad where we dedicated our gift of a Skate Board course in their Central park as a gift to the children of Arad. We also visited the new community of Givot Bar, 5 miles from Beersheva, where we visited our gift of a brand new "Central Park" with its playground equipment and a little water stream to flow through it creating a great place for fun and relaxation under shade
trees. We saw the newly completed primary school and nursery and the thirty new homes under construction.

We ended our tour of the Negev with a visit to the magnificent indoor bomb-proof playground in Sederot. We got there about 5 pm and the building was filled with over 600 children.  Some were playing soccer or using the disco or the rock climbing wall or the computer room or the pin pong, knock hockey or computer game machines. The younger children were playing in the miniature supermarket filling up their shopping carts with make believe canned foods, loaves of bread, etc. Parents were sitting in the cafe area sipping tea or coffee and munching on a danish while enjoying watching their children gleefully playing. IT WAS SO GRATIFYING TO KNOW THAT WE HAD BROUGHT TREMENDOUS JOY into what would otherwise be a sad lonely existence staying at home near their safe room (BOMB SHELTER) in the event of a rocket attack from Gaza.  How proud all of us JNFers are or should be! Wednesday we left Jerusalem and drove north.  Our first stop was a sewerage recycling plant in Israel opposite Tulkarem in the Palestinian West Bank.  Unfortunately the Palestinians do not process their sewerage letting it run through the streets and down the mountainside into Israel.  With JNF assistance a recycling plant captures the runoff sewage and treats it so that it becomes "safe" water.  If not, the Alexander River (which flows out to the Mediterranean) would be polluted, the fish would die and all the picnic and other park sites would be unusable due to the stench.  Kudos to us!

From there we traveled further north to Lotem, an amazing JNF park facility.  Nature provides a spring that spouts water all year round near the top of a mountain and flows down to the bottom of the mountain where Kibbutz Ein Hashofet is located.  The name means the "spring of the judge."  It was named in memory of Judge Louis Dembitz Brandeis by some American settlers.  JNF built a forest trail alongside a paved path (wide enough for a wheelchair and sloped so that a reasonably strong occupant of the chair, or caretaker, can roll himself up the mountain (down is really easy).   There are picnic areas and many groups of physically challenged kids as well as injured soldiers are brought here for outdoor experiences in addition to scouting and other youth groups.  Every time I go there I have plenty of opportunities to perform magic shows for the groups.  They are very appreciative audiences.

From Lotem we traveled to a Druze village (Usafiya) for a kosher Druze lunch.  It was delicious!  Unfortunately, it was in this village that two Druze boys were outside smoking an Arab water-pipe.  When they had finished smoking they tapped their pipes to empty the ashes. Unfortunately all of the embers were not extinguished and as a result they started to burn some forest tinder and in a very short time the disastrous Carmel Forest fire was begun.  The fire turned out to be the worst in Israel's history.  The fire caused 44 deaths including one 15 year old Junior fire fighter.  After lunch we traversed the forest and ended up at the Carmel Hotel Spa, a very luxurious hotel. When we arrived we were met by a representative of the youth group, Green Horizons, together with about a dozen of the youngster members. Green Horizons is an outdoor hiking, camping, leadership training group which promotes social responsibility, physical and mental development and leadership training for kids of high school age and older.  They invited our mission participants to join them on a short hike in the Carmel mountains.  About a dozen of us agreed to join them.  The kids were bright, knowledgeable, very friendly and were chosen because they all knew English.  As we hiked along the crest of the mountain we could see nature at its finest.  The kids pointed out plants and flowers. They told us which were edible and which were poisonous.  They explained how the forest was regenerating itself after the fire and much more. Halfway along the trail they surprised us. There were three kids who had been sent ahead, made a "protected" fire and made tea from plants we had seen on the trail.  It was delicious.  We returned to the Hotel, I did another magic show for the kids, they left and we prepared for another delicious dinner.

Thursday, our last mission day, was another moving experience.  We started by driving to the memorial site that has been erected in the Carmel forest for the 45 victims of the fire (the prison guards, the police chief, the firefighters and the 15 year old junior fire fighter). There we had a surprise dedication of a small forest fire truck that had been bought with the funds raised by a young Bar Mitzvah boy who, two years ago, asked that in lieu of Bar Mitzvah gifts that his friends and family help buy a fire truck.  He had joined his mother on this trip and to the cheers and applause of all of us, climbed behind the wheel of the truck with cameras flashing all around. It was a beautiful and symbolic act of practicality.  After the truck was properly presented to the fire chief we moved on to the memorial plaza. The memorial sculpture is a long piece of steel that curves off into space and partially turns back and abruptly ends.  It is moving in its simplicity.  There is a commemorative wall that lists all the names and ages.  We had with us at the memorial ceremony the mother of the 15 year old boy who perished.  He was her only child.  She had been devastated by the loss and did not leave her house for 7 months from the time of his death.  Russell Robinson, our CEO of JNF of America,
would visit her on each of his visits to Israel (he had visited her on the third day after his death) trying to comfort her and Russell told her that JNF had created a scholarship for other teen agers to be fire scouts like her son.  JNF also contacted the boy's school and agreed with the principal to build an area on the school grounds in his memory.  Students of the school and members of JNF's college program, Alternative Winter Break worked together to build the memorial space. It is a hallowed ground at the school and an inspiration to many other youngsters to volunteer for service to the nation. His mother spoke and told us of her son, of his dedication, of JNF's support to her and her husband and of her great appreciation for Russell's friendship As she put it… "A friend found me."  We all said Kaddish and were moved to tears.  Tears of sadness for the loss….tears of joy for the
good man can do for man.  As we got back on the bus I couldn't help but feel so proud.

During the four days we trans versed Israel from Negev to Galilee many of our co-travelers took the mike and addressed the group.  They spoke of the projects that they had sponsored and the sense of pride and satisfaction when they saw the joy they had brought to others, of our amazing collective effort on behalf of the environment and our constant efforts to improve the quality of life.

We, the Jewish People, have a reputation for goodness, and deeds of loving kindness.  Everything JNF had done that we had witnessed showed our concern for the land and people of Israel.  We have been working to transform the desert into a paradise, to improve the quality of life for all the residents of Israel, Jew and non-Jew.  We have done it with hard work, creativity, enthusiasm, integrity and love for the land and its people.  How proud we are that our efforts are being appreciated by so many.  How thrilled we are to know how many mitzvahs we are performing.  Increasing those deeds of loving kindness is dependent on bringing many more JNFers to see Israel with their own eyes and have them find the challenge that they want to address…. to make Israel and the world a better place.

Bob Levine