Federation’s interfaith mission to Israel

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Charlotte Raynor, pictured here in the Galilee, recently participated in the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s Business Leaders Mission to Israel. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix

The Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix  hosted a business leaders mission to Israel  from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1. One of the participants, political activist Charlotte Raynor, shares her impressions from the trip:  

The last time I thought I understood what was going on with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was in fifth grade. I wrote a report for school entitled “How It All Began.” I don’t remember what my thesis was, but since I hadn’t revisited the topic as an adult, I jumped at the chance to participate in the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix Community and Business Leaders Mission to Israel.

It was an interfaith mission designed to give “an understanding of Israel both from an historical and modern-day perspective.”

We started in Tel Aviv with the insights of social historian Paul Liptz, who is on the faculty of Tel Aviv University:

  • 75 %of Israel’s population of 8.4 million (think the population of New York City) is Jewish, most having been born in Israel.
  • 21% of Israel’s population is Arab.
  • 4% are immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, and other countries.

That mix, taken together with Israel’s unique isolation in the Middle East, has fostered a willingness to take risks, to innovate; and has led to a sense among Israelis that they can make a difference and have an impact on their small and striving society.

We met with innovators in business and technology, and visited so-called incubators or accelerators where Israelis who have an idea for a start-up for a business can find mentors, advisers, work space and encouragement.

The most interesting incubator to me was in Jerusalem at an organization called PresenTense (Presentense.org). It works with social entrepreneurs – those who have an idea for a business or project that will “enrich communal life, grow local economies and solve critical issues facing society.” This is essentially an incubator for tikkun olam, with an emphasis on inclusion and diversity as an added value.

Immigrants, Haredi women, Arab Israelis and others may apply to the program with a proposal for a project to meet a need in their communities. They complete a course curriculum, meet with mentors, and refine their proposals. Even if, at the end, their proposed project is amended or does not attract start-up funding, the participants have gained valuable skills in social entrepreneurship. They are empowered to try, try again.

The other mission highlight for me was visiting the (Shimon) Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. We met with Yarden Leal-Yablonka, who described efforts that I think of as “actionable peace.” Most of the Center’s staff of 33 are project managers who are out in the field helping Israelis and Palestinians to come together, and work together to accomplish something or to meet a need. Leal-Yablonka says these are always projects suggested by the people affected by them, not imposed by well-meaning outsiders. The shared experience of identifying a problem and working toward a solution could be considered “peace education” for Arabs and Jews.

With children, the Peres Center does its work through sports programs. At first, Israeli and Palestinian children are introduced to “the other” via Skype so they can get acquainted first without face-to-face confrontation.

When the kids get together for games, they use the fair play method, rather than using a referee. The learning experience is in teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play.

My thought is that whatever is happening at the political level, Arab and Israeli kids have concrete experiences with each other that could grow peace.

After learning about some of the projects of the Peace Center, we were able to view some of the letters, documents and photographs from the Shimon Peres archives. One was a quote from Peres which I think sums up the prospects for peace:

“I don’t know if it’s possible, but it is interesting.”

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JFNA Israel mission: Providing job training for the haredi community

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Esther and Don Schon, 2015 chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign, and Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, are currently on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to Tbilisi, Georgia and Israel. Here, Don Schon reports from the Israel portion of the mission.

What do you do if you are a Haredi scholar in Israel who has set up six kollelim for Haredi to study in and one day realize what you built does not meet the needs of a large number of Haredi men and women? You set about correcting the situation.

At the formation of the State of Israel, 400 men were exempted from the army in order to salvage the field of Torah study. However, that 400 has grown into a large population of ultra-Orthodox with only a  seventh-grade secular education level and minimal job skills. The number of Haredi needing financial assistance and not serving in the IDF is so large it has become disruptive to Israeli society. Recognizing that he had students whose needs were financial and for whom a lifetime of devotional study was not appropriate, he started a new program with JDC (The Joint Distribution Committee or “Joint”).  In this program, women who have teaching degrees that they cannot use (too many ultra-Orthodox woman have trained as teachers and there are not enough jobs for them) are retrained. Men get job skill assessment and skills training at a separate time of day.

In this program, they identify existing skills, teach candidates to write a resume, get them into a program for the Israeli equivalent of a GED, provide job training programs in the private sector and military and help them achieve the dignity of self-reliance and exposure to the rest of Israeli society. After assessment and training, clients qualify for government-subsidized training programs. This program is very careful to train only men and women who seek out the help. This program is also careful to tell clients they do not have to leave their lifestyle and social network to participate.

This and sister programs throughout Israel have trained and obtained employment for 30,000 Haredi men and women and have taken them off the welfare roles while giving them the dignity of self-reliance. After completing the program, the trainee qualifies for government-funded educational and training programs. Thus the cost per client to JDC is only about 250 Federation dollars. These programs, as with most JDC programs, are expected to gradually become self-funded.

Some of these programs have been sponsored by the IDF, which places Haredi men in non-combatant support roles. In one example of a group trained as aircraft mechanics, the secular commander was so pleased with their performance during Operation Protective Edge, that he requested as many Haredi mechanics as he could train.

These programs use JFNA dollars raised in North America. Our sages tell us that Jews are responsible to and for each other and that no Jew should ever be left behind. I think that we can be proud of what we do!


JFNA Tbilisi mission: Both lightness and darkness

Esther and Don Schon, 2015 chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign, and Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, are currently on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to Tbilisi, Georgia and Israel. Here, Don Schon reports from the mission.

At dinner, we listened to the minister of the interior and the prime minister of Georgia. Georgia’s history is startling and different. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia was totally unprepared for independence. In those “dark” years, water was not delivered, electricity was unavailable and there was no economy. Georgia eventually reached out to the West and started to develop. However, one-third of Georgia lives upon less than $3 per day. They had the will to westernize, wipe corruption out of the police, military and government and open their door to immigration in and emigration out.

Georgia has never known significant nor institutional anti-Semitism. Muslims, Christians and Jews live and work together and intermarry. The interior minister spoke lovingly of his mother’s history. Having fallen in love with a Christian and marrying him, she was banished by her extended Jewish family. She allowed her son to be raised Catholic but taught him Jewish traditions and love of Israel.

The prime minister of Georgia spoke next, emphasizing that religious and ethnic bigotry was offensive to Georgian culture. The prime minister, the beneficiary of Jewish patronage and training, spoke with great respect and honor for the country’s Jewish heritage. He then went on to relate the economic needs of Georgia for U.S. investment, military training and their urgent desire for NATO protection against Russia. He was proud that Georgia enabled any Jew who wanted to return to their ancient home to do so. Tens of thousands have done so for economic opportunity and for education.

We also experienced the unique opportunity of a private audience with His Holiness the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. He related his love for the Jewish people, his respect for their desire to return to their homeland and their contributions to Georgia. He ended by blessing us all and stated that for Georgians, a blessing from a Jew was like a direct blessing from G-d.

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The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church speaks to delegates of the JFNA mission to Tbilisi Photo courtesy of Don Schon

So, we discover a conundrum. Georgia is a country and culture that has a long history of Jewish acceptance and appreciation of our culture and traditions. Yet, the Jewish population has dropped from over 100,000 to less than 10,000 because of the opportunities available in Israel. So we have succeeded with a Zionist program which has depleted the Jewish population from the most accepting culture and country in Eurasia. As with most things in life, there is both lightness and darkness.