Can a soldier with one leg ride a surfboard?

Valley residents Esther and Don Schon recently returned from visits to France and Israel as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chairs in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. This guest blog post was written by the Schons on July 17.

surfers

Teen surfing instructors head from a Tel Aviv beach to their Mediterranean “classroom.” Photo courtesy of the Schons

Can a soldier with one leg ride a surfboard? I would have said no until yesterday (July 16). But then I went to the beach in Tel Aviv.

A third of Israeli Jews live below the poverty line. Where there are poor adults there are impoverished children, and Israel is no exception. When these impoverished children become teenagers, they are at high risk for succumbing to drug addiction, prostitution, crime and prison. Or, at least until two ex-soldiers, one with a law degree, decided that because they liked surfing and needed something meaningful to do they would start a program to teach disadvantaged teens how to surf. Scrounging donations from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which receives funding from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), equipment manufacturers, school budgets and philanthropists, they put together a program for at-risk teens from high schools of last resort.

They selected students who said they wanted to learn to surf. They started by teaching the teens to balance on a board, but as their students learned that skill, they talked about balance in life. As the students graduated to waves, they also talked about the waves and ups and downs they face in life. The teens were introduced to tasks that required group participation both for balance and to achieve a goal and then they talked about the effect that their actions had on others and the meaning and effectiveness of teamwork.

Before going out into the ocean, the students had to study a manual and demonstrate learning by taking a test. And now since they could study for and pass a test on the beach, why not in school? Pride on the board led to pride in the group and, ultimately, to individual and group success.

The vast majority of the 750 teens who have gone through the program have finished high school rather than finish with drugs.

But the two ex-soldiers were worried. The initial program lasted was less than a year. To really have an ongoing effect on the lives of the students, the soldiers needed to extend the program. But to go further they needed funds. Since they now had equipment and space, they started a for-profit summer camp and put together a team development program to market to companies in Israel. To do this, they needed instructors and counselors. So after obtaining a start-up development grant from JFNA through JAFI the former soldiers trained the students who had completed the initial program to be counselors and instructors.

Now, the ex-soldiers had an income stream to pay for and extend the program. A Knesset member, hearing about the program, reasoned that if we can give new skills and confidence to at-risk teens, why not severely injured and traumatized soldiers? We watched a film crew documenting an IDF pilot on crutches with mangled legs and a soldier with an above-the-knee amputation get on surf boards in the sea with these teen instructors.

So I the way we see it, a Jew in Phoenix gives a donation to the federation and money ends up in the hands of two enterprising young Israelis, who help underprivileged teens have a productive life. Is that not what our ethics tell us is right?

 

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French Jews: To stay or to go?

Valley residents Esther and Don Schon just returned from visits to France and Israel as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chairs in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. This guest blog post was written by the Schons on July 13.

The conundrum “Do we go or do we stay?” may well summarize the agonizing decision that French Jews face.

Jews in France make up the third-largest Jewish population in the West, but represent less than 1 percent of the French population. Contrast this with a Muslim population of an estimated 10 million. Because of anti-Semitism, 12,000 French Jews have made aliyah in the last five years. Many of the immigrants are funded with money raised through JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) facilitated by The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
About 900 anti-Semitic incidents involving individual Jews or families occurred this past year. Jews, 1 percent of the population, experienced 50 percent of hate-related episodes in France last year. Anti-Semitism is not uniformly distributed in France. Professionals we met living in upper-middle-class areas did not fear their environment, and were working with government ministers to make hate speech of all kinds illegal.

However, we met residents of Sarcelles, a lower-middle-class neighborhood outside of Paris. They experience fear every day. They do not wear Jewish jewelry or kippot outside. Expressions of hatred – verbal and sometimes physical – are everyday experiences.
On the other hand, wealthier neighborhoods are free of these problems. We also listened to a panel of young entrepreneurs who feel they are creating a new post-Holocaust reality in France above the level of ignorance-based prejudice. On the other hand, we spoke with a graduate student and a law student, both at the Sorbonne, who felt traumatized on a frequent basis by Islamic students and by professors with views from the far left or far right.

So Jews move from the smaller cities to Paris for safety and comradeship denuding these areas of Jewish culture and tradition. Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, now has 15,000 Jewish residents crowded into one square kilometer. In 2014, 1,700 recent Arab immigrants, incited by radical imams trained in North Africa and the Middle East, marched through the Jewish section burning cars, smashing all in their path, forcing terrified Jewish children to cower in their homes.

About 8,000 Jews made aliyah last year from France. But school funding to Jewish day schools from the government is per child. Thus, classrooms are closing. Jewish culture is in danger of contracting and without a strong diaspora population, it is questionable that the French government will continue to fight anti-Semitism and support Israel in the future.

JAFI sends over 100 Jews making aliyah to Israel every two weeks. Today [July 13], we personally were chosen to hand tickets and passports to 220 individuals. We all experienced tears of happiness for this great honor.

passport

Esther Schon has just presented Mr. Souffir with the passports, plane tickets and other documents needed for his family to make Aliyah. Photo courtesy of the Schons

So do they go or do they stay? The beauty of what our federations are doing in France is allowing each individual Jew the gift of choice on a non-need-based basis. We in Phoenix and around North America help them fight anti-Semitism and connect to world Jewry if they elect to stay. We also help them make aliyah if they wish to leave. Each gets to choose. What could be more beautiful?


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.

Patriarch

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.