Having just returned from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission I am overwhelmed. JFNA in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) had us learn about the work they do to support Jewish communities around the world. I told you already about the amazing work they do in Georgia and I’d like to share with you some impressions of what they do in Israel. There are so many ways to describe all the meetings we had and sites we saw but I think the best is to talk about the people who benefit from the JDC and JAFI.
We may know that a priority of the Israeli government now is to integrate the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population into Israeli society. As we learned from an economist on the mission, if Israel fails to do so soon, Israel will lose its economic viability and will go into recession. JDC therefore has developed vocational training within the Haredi population which entails math and English lessons, being drafted in the army and job training. Several yeshiva students came to meet with us, each at a different table, and told us their story. The student at my table described his reticence in letting his family know that he was involved in the JDC training. It took him 6 months until he felt comfortable wearing his army uniform in public. There is still opposition in the Haredi community to any kind of integration into “normative” Israeli society because of the sense of the negative impact it might have on their community. Some yeshivot have agreed to participate in the JDC program and the graduates – now 3 years into the initiative – have proven to be both productive and still Haredi.
I met a man at a community center in Ramat Hasharon – just north of Tel Aviv – that is run by JDC specifically for elderly Holocaust survivors. The program we saw meets every Sunday afternoon and it is music and dancing. It’s called Café Europa named for the café that was opened in Sweden after WWII for Holocaust survivors who ended up there. Some of them went on to Israel and eventually, with the help of the JDC their children started this program. It is essentially an elder day care facility but the purpose of this particular program is to provide pure entertainment. A DJ comes in and plays Israeli and European music and the volunteers and survivors sing and dance together. Instead of dancing I stood in the back and one survivor walked over to me and introduced himself. Though he looked 70 he was 87 and described how proud he was that one of his 8 great grandchildren is currently a paratrooper in the Israeli army.
Finally when we were at the JAFI headquarters in Jerusalem we learned of the ongoing efforts to recuse Jews in danger around the world. Because of the sensitivity of the operations we were told not to take notes or share the details but suffice it to say that the story that one of these recently rescued Jews shared was both uplifting and heart breaking. It is truly remarkable that JAFI is able to do this work in countries that obviously have no relations with western countries – let alone with Israel.
It is clear from all these stories that the rabbinic dictum – “kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another – is what lies behind the tremendous work of JDC and JAFI. They do amazing mitzvah work and they need our support. When we give money to our greater Washington Federation a portion of it goes to these agencies. But you should feel free to also give to them directly. It was humbling and exciting to be on this mission and I look forward already to next year’s mission.