This past week

Oftentimes, my life seems to be on one continuous loop – commutes to and from school, putting out a weekly paper, meal preparations and lots of laundry. I’m not complaining, but sometimes it’s nice to get a break from the routine. This past week has been a whirlwind of a break.

Thursday: I joined about 800 other women in our community at the Valley of the JCC for the Great AZ Challah Bake. This was part of the Shabbat Project, which reached 1,150 cities in 94 countries this year. An estimated 1 million people took part in celebrations on and around the Shabbat of Nov. 11-12, according to a press release I received.

32 TDR WM Molho Photography Challah 2016 32TDR 1PIN2524.JPG

About 800 women and girls attended the Great AZ Challah Bake on Nov. 10 at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center. Photo courtesy of Molho Photography

The Shabbat Project’s goal of presenting an opportunity for Jewish unity was very welcome, especially this week after last week’s election spurred so much divisiveness, protests, and racist and anti-Semitic actions. According to the release, 8,000 women attended a challah bake in Buenos Aires, 15 families in a tiny Jewish enclave in Cancun, Mexico, kept Shabbat for the first-time and there was even a Shabbaton on board a cruise ship in the Atlantic.

Friday: My family and I joined about 100 other people for an outdoor Shabbat dinner in a cul-de-sac in a Phoenix neighborhood, organized through the Phoenix Community Kollel as part of the Shabbat Project. One of the beautiful things about Shabbat is sharing it with other people in a variety of ways. The weekend before, my family and I were in Flagstaff and celebrated Shabbat at Congregation Lev Shalom (previously Heichal Baornim), where we participated in a beautiful musical Shabbat service with congregants there.

Saturday: We celebrated a bar mitzvah of a friend’s son at our synagogue and coordinated some play dates.

Sunday: I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference, which was held in conjunction with the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA). 20161114_003547 After arriving at my hotel near Dupont Circle, I had vegetarian Indian food with colleagues from Nashville, Jerusalem and Dayton, Ohio then toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the GA.


From an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Monday: The AJPA conference kicked off with a “Show & Tell” session that showcased AJPA newspapers around the country, and attendees shared multiple ideas with one another. Other sessions included Dr. Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler, director of the Israel Democracy Institute Media Reform Program, who spoke about the similarities and differences between American and Israeli media; and we learned about trends, tools and technologies of new journalism and new media from Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, William Daroff, JFNA senior vice president for public policy and Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Times of Israel new media editor.

AJPA attendees were also invited to attend the GA Plenary, which featured Natan Sharansky, head of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Accepting the Rockower Award on behalf of Jewish News, presented by incoming AJPA President Craig Burke, CEO of Mid-Atlantic Media. Photo courtesy of AJPA

Next, AJPA attendees headed to the International Spy Museum for the 35th annual Simon Rockower Awards reception. Plus we got to tour the museum, which was founded by philanthropist Milton Maltz and features a collection of international espionage artifacts. At the ceremony, Jewish News won first place for Outstanding Digital Outreach in Division B, for newspapers with a circulation of 14,999 or less.

Tuesday: I got a chance to meet with my husband’s cousin’s wife for breakfast. She’s an Israeli filmmaker who was in town to speak at a session at the GA and was heading back to Tel Aviv that morning. (A little plug for her – Rama Burshtein, who wrote and directed “Fill the Void,” just released a new comedy in Israel: “Through the Wall.”)

Next was a session about journalists who covered the 2016 presidential race and the struggles they faced, including anti-Semitic attacks.

The GA’s closing plenary was next, featuring a tribute to Shimon Peres, featuring his son Chemi Peres, chairman of the Peres Center for Peace; an address from JFNA President & CEO Jerry Silverman; and a video conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,


Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the GA attendees at a plenary.

who expressed high hopes for Israel’s future relationships with other countries, citing technology partnerships as an example.

That afternoon we had a session about solution journalism (attendees from the business departments of their newspapers had some separate sessions that focused on their work) and we finished the day with a dinner meeting of AJPA’s executive board. (And then I took an evening walk, about three miles total, to the White House, with a colleague from Nashville.)

Wednesday: The conference came to a close with a change in plans – an opportunity to visit the State Department with briefings from government officials: Ira Forman, special envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; Chanan Weissman, the White House Jewish liaison; Tom Yazdgerdim, special envoy for Holocaust Issues; and Michael Yaffe, senior adviser of the special envoy to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 20161116_091731

After that it was a lunch during AJPA’s annual meeting and then we all headed home to our respective cities – and newspapers and communities.

All of these experiences made me realize just how small our world is and how interconnected we are and how many people work so diligently to bring good into the world. Despite the feelings of divisiveness and hatred that have been expressed this past week in the aftermath of the election, we have to remember that all of that is nothing new – it has always existed and will likely always exist (Ira Forman said the same thing about anti-Semitism during the briefing at the State Department).

We need to focus on the good and work hard to bring out the goodness in the world instead of focusing only on the bad. Hearing about all the good being done around the world – the GA plenaries also included stories told by individuals from Greece, Israel, Morocco and the Ukraine – I felt some light was brought into the darkness that overshadowed the world in the days after the election.

And now on to all the laundry that piled up in my absence …

Leisah Woldoff is managing editor of Phoenix Jewish News.


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.


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?


JFNA Israel mission: Providing job training for the haredi community

Kotel (2)

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: No Jew should be left behind

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aid. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aide. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

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.

Organized Jewish life in Tbilisi, Georgia has had some notable successes. We visited an Ashkenazic synagogue that was newly reconstructed to its traditional structure and function with donated local money.

Ashkenazic synagogue

Ashkenazic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

They have services, a Hebrew school and daily minyan.

Tbilisi has a Jewish museum, constructed on the grounds of a former synagogue and in the ancient Jewish quarter and with government money and to celebrate its Jewish history.

In addition we visited the grand Sephardic Synagogue, large, maintained and functioning.

Georgian childrenToday we went to camp. The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) has camp programs throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union. The camp is run by Israelis who come back year after year. For $1,100, a teenager gets two weeks of Jewish camp, where they are taught traditions, history and religious life skills.

We danced, we competed, we “twisted” and we ate with these incredible 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. They often come from families with Jewish history from one parent or both, but with little Jewish knowledge. Once these kids make the effort to attend some Jewish events, they become eligible for camp. It was a glorious experience.

Marty Haberer

Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, joins the dance.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Tbilisi also has a Jewish Center which houses Hillel, programs for the elderly, youth programs and Hesed. Through Hesed we met Maya Bartkulashvili. Maya is 88 and home bound. Her family, a product of communist persecution, lived, and Maya still does, in one room. She has no kitchen nor toilet. There is a communal kitchen for six apartments with an old bathtub as the only water source for the building. There is no indoor toilet in the building. The building is from the 19th century, not maintained and with no heat. Maya uses a hot plate for warmth and received disabling burns by tripping on it. Her pension is $66 per month from which she has to buy all she needs. Hesed, a JDC program, shops for her and provides a home health aide. Hesed is able to allot her $40 per month for food. We bought her food, chocolate and a rare delicacy, bananas.

Then we saw the “kids.” Teens performed traditional Georgian Jewish dance in traditional costumes.

Georgian dancers2We watched in amazement as these children from a very poor rural area over an hour away danced their hearts away and then danced with us. All of this is possible because of North American Jewish dollars donated to JDC and the Jewish Agency. We all had tears of joy as we watched the amazing things our dollars do and tears of sadness for all the needs we saw for which no dollars are available.

Jews take care of Jews. No Jew should be left behind as we are responsible to each other. Our Phoenix Jewish community has clearly started these tasks. We help fund these programs big time through our Federation campaign dollars. Esther and I will come home with the determination to take our tasks to the next level.

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.


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.

Federation mission to Tbilisi, Georgia


Tbilisi, Georgia

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.

We arrived here at 3 a.m., got a few hours of sleep and joined other early arrivals on a bus tour of the vicinity. “Here” is Tbilisi, Georgia. We are on a mission for Federation campaign chairs, staff and presidents and are representing the Phoenix Federation together with Marty Haberer. Tomorrow, we will begin observing programs of the “Joint” or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Any lingering doubts about making this trip disappeared today in talking to these dedicated volunteers, ages 35 to 70. It is humbling for Esther and me to see how much we are learning from the efforts others have made to create their communities around North America. The Joint is special to us. After World War II, Esther’s Holocaust survivor family received visas to immigrate to the U.S.A. The trip was financed by “The Joint,” as were the costs of getting them settled in Detroit. Without “The Joint,” I would have never met the love of my life 55 years ago at age 13 nor conceived the three incredible kids we have nor watch them as they all become more and more determined to make the world a better place.

Don Schon, center, and his wife, Esther, right, are in Tbilisi, Georgia on a mission with Jewish Federations of North America. Photo courtesy of Don Schon

Don Schon, center, and his wife, Esther, right are in Tbilisi, Georgia on a mission with Jewish Federations of North America. At left is is Lisa, a member of the Federation Young Leadership Council who lives in California. Photo courtesy of Don Schon

Georgia ended 70 years of Soviet domination in 1990. The scars of Soviet architecture litter the landscape. The Georgians are a proud people and exceedingly friendly. However, as we watch the people and the landscape and listen to the bitterness left behind from the Russian occupation, it becomes apparent that this country is only beginning its emergence into first-world status.

We are told that Jews first came here at the time of the Babylonian exile 2,800 years ago. We are also told that anti-Semitism does not exist in Georgia and that the Georgians value their Jewish brothers and sisters. But if that is true, then why has the Georgian Jewish population shrunk from 100,000 to less than 5,000 Jews? We will learn more about this as the trip progresses.

Join the conversation

One of the topics discussed at Valley Beit Midrash’s Oct. 9 opening event – which featured the organization’s new director, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, interviewing Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Federations of North America about “The Future of American Judaism: Challenges & Opportunities in the 21st Century” – was the results of the recent Pew survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which was released on Oct. 1.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, left, interviews Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at Valley Beit Midrash's opening event on Oct. 9. Photo by Joel Zolondek

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, left, interviews Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at Valley Beit Midrash’s opening event on Oct. 9.
Photo by Joel Zolondek

Many of the survey results have been widely reported (Click here to check it out for yourself). Silverman, who has served as JFNA’s president for the past five years, called the survey, the first Jewish population study since 2000, “an amazing gift to the Jewish community because data is knowledge.”

But how can we use this data?

“What we need to do is listen,” Silverman said.

“We need to listen to those who are opting out,” he said. “We’ve got to be great listeners.” He called the Pew survey “a gift we have to use.”

Because the release of this important data is so recent, community leaders will need some time to digest what it means for their own community. “There is no one-size-fits-all” strategy, Silverman said.

So how will the Valley’s Jewish community use this information?

Here at Jewish News, we see our role in the community as a way to facilitate conversation between all the many groups with all their varying missions. In each issue, we aim to deliver, well, Jewish news – in an interesting, accurate format.

Although the Valley’s Jewish community is so spread out, our cyber community is available to anyone with an Internet connection. In addition to the Jewish News’ Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter feeds, the conversation can continue on the Jewish News website,, through its new comment feature. Keep it civil, please; comments will be moderated.

Our website’s new interactive, searchable calendar is now also available. Synagogues and organizations are encouraged to create an account and submit their own events (this is in addition to the weekly calendar in the print issue). Since space isn’t limited on the online calendar, there’s no limit on how far in advance events can be posted.

Lastly, have you visited the Jewish News’ mobile website? Now you can continue the conversation on any of your mobile devices, anywhere you are.