Aug 06

Over the past few days we have spent a lot of time visiting programs dedicated to the advancement of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society, funded in part by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. As with any immigrant community, the integration process is not an easy one. The radical culture shock of coming from rural Africa to modern western society is not easily absorbed, especially by the older generation. A natural split often occurs where the young generation, who is more integrated into the local culture becomes estranged from their parents and their heritage. This estrangement from their parents often leaves the immigrant children without role models. They feel segregated from the native Israelis and alienated from their parents. With nowhere else to turn these children often end up involved in drugs, alcohol, and anything else they may pick up from hanging out on the street. This picture represents the side of immigration that we are most often exposed to, especially in the philanthropic community where the focus is  commonly to help the weakest elements of society.

Yesterday, in between visiting centres for Ethiopian youth at risk, we were privileged to see a glimpse of the brighter side of Ethiopian integration. Abaye Zorde is one of the youngest elected municipal representatives in all of Israel, and the only Ethiopian on the city council of Rehovot. Having worked his way up through the municipal ranks, Abaye has put himself into a position where he has the capacity to help his native community, and he has taken full advantage of that opportunity.

But the programming and advocacy Abaye has initiated for the Ethiopian community is only his second most important role in the city. More importantly, Abaye gives Ethiopian youth confidence. By achieving what he has, Abaye shows Ethiopian kids that there are other opportunities for them beyond life on the street. One of the co-ordinators of an Ethiopian youth centre told us that when she asked the young girls what they wanted to be when they grow up the most popular answer was ‘a cleaning lady’. “It’s natural” she told us “that’s what they see around them, and they don’t think of anything else. But when kids don’t dream, they can’t achieve.”. When Ethiopian youth see one of their ranks who has become a successful, contributing member of Israeli society, they too are given the opportunity to dream.

Immigration can never be made easy, and integration by nature is not seamless; but if we can change the image of immigrant populations and give the spotlight to people like Abaye perhaps the mindset of the immigrants themselves will be shifted. When immigrant populations are painted as destitute and helpless it can become a self fulfilling prophecy, but if they are shown their own potential, maybe in the near future we can be asking for their help in our own Aliya process.

Aug 06

This week Israel has been eventful from start to finish, and filled with interesting tours and meetings. Some highlights not related to our program include 6:00 a.m. wakeups and my subsequent burgeoning addiction to caffeine. We have seen thriving young communities and mission-driven organizations from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, from Ben Shemen to Acco. We have also seen first-hand the challenges that Ethiopian immigrants to Israel face, as well as gaining valuable insights into their culture and way of life. Some of our day trips this week included the Ethiopian communities in Bat Yam and Kiryat Moshe. Some of the particular issues that new immigrants face are low socioeconomic standing, large generational gap, and the cultural shock of being uprooted from one land and attempting to continue life in another. Ethiopian communities that are models of success tend to pride themselves on their unique heritage and customs, while making extensive efforts to become participants in Israeli life. Our visits took us to community centres, schools, ulpanim, offices, and basketball courts. The fact that so many people, with the support of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, are dedicating their lives to improving the living conditions and future prospects for these communities is very inspirational.

Another equally important visit, and definitely an extremely emotional one, was to the NATAL trauma center in Tel Aviv. This organization, which employs both volunteers and professional staff, plays a key role in Israel. It is dedicated to counseling and assisting Israelis of all types who are affected by trauma. This can include soldiers, those who have lost family members to war or terror, victims of terror (such as residents of Sderot or the north), and family members of those severely affected by traumatizing experience. NATAL’s headquarters hosts volunteers (who run the help-phone line), mental health professionals, and stress-relief and educational activities, as well as a whole multitude of other things. What we learned there is that many, many Israelis are affected by trauma and its symptoms, for a wide variety of reasons. Many of them do not get the help they require, but NATAL is trying to help. They send out mobile teams to help people in places like Sderot, which need them badly. NATAL also made it clear that, while they have been able to accomplish a lot, there is a whole lot more they could do with increased awareness of their services. That’s why I’d advise anyone to take a look at their website (or borrow the video on the mobile team in Sderot that they gave me). They also made it abundantly clear that they’d be happy to speak to anyone interested in what they do, or to send a speaker for any kind of function. The bottom line is, they’re providing an essential (although often overlooked) service to many of the people in Israel who are adversely affected by terrorism, war, and even domestic issues. An organization like this certainly deserves our attention and praise – not to mention our help.

Aug 06

The achievements of those living in the Negev, Israel’s largely vacant southern desert region, are very impressive. These people are successfully pursuing the early Zionist aspiration of making the desert bloom. On the drive north from Eilat, we passed through awe-inspiring mountains near the Egyptian border, stretches of desert that seemingly extended to eternity, and pristine valleys and craters, all on our twisty, winding highway.

We spent a day in Yerucham, which is located between Mitzpeh Ramon and Dimona. We saw how an immigrant encampment that sprung up in the 1950’s turned into the thriving and vibrant town that exists today. We were privileged to meet many of the personalities responsible for the metamorphosis of this town. In addition to meeting community leaders, visionaries and scholars, we were introduced to Midreshet Bamidbar. Bamidbar presents a unique approach to bridging the gaps between Israelis, similar to the approach behind the Elul beit midreshot discussed earlier. Bamidbar uses Jewish resources, including biblical texts, commentaries and philosophers, to bring together Jews from all different places on the religious, ideological, and socioeconomic spectrum. As well, they emphasize and develop Jewish culture in the town, often using multiculturalism or pluralism within Judaism as a forum. They also utilize the town’s own distinctive resource to teach lessons and augment experiences – that being the desert, which you can see if you look, not very far, in any particular direction. We also enjoyed a great barbeque and nighttime desert scorpion viewing.

On Thursday and Friday we visited the city of Sderot, located barely a kilometer away from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Before Thursday I had always thought of Sderot as a beleaguered city constantly under siege, a dark, gloomy and cheerless place where the determined residents grimly soldiered on, trying to survive daily barrages of Kassam rockets. This picture could not be further from the truth – except for the part about the Kassams, and about the residents being extremely determined and resilient. Sderot is a beautiful and lively city, and does not seem like the kind of place that is constantly seen on the news as the site of daily terrorist attacks. That is, until you look around and see the rocket shelters on every corner. Or the Kassam-proofed roofs on public buildings. Or the windowless schools, built with safety in mind. Not to mention the chunks taken out of streets, playgrounds or walls. Sderot is a normal place filled with normal people living normal lives in their pretty red and white brick houses. However, normality and routine abruptly end with the arrival of rockets launched from Gaza.

Sderot deserves more than the fortified roofs and Kassam shelters. From my conversations with Sderot residents, it is clear that they don’t want to be viewed with sympathetic eyes. What they want is for people to pressure the Israeli government into finally taking decisive action to protect them for good. Of course, they also want people to be aware of their situation. As well, international lobbying to convince the government of Egypt to stop allowing the smuggling of weapons into Gaza is on the priority list. There you have it – that’s what Sderot wants, coming straight from the mouths of its own citizens. Luckily, Toronto is a community that has had tremendous impact upon awareness and action regarding Sderot. Hopefully our efforts in the future can help instill tranquility and security in the place that needs it the most.

Jul 25

Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom! 15…14…13…Tzeva Adom! 12…11…10…

When we think of Sderot, often we think of the constant fear of kassam rockets, the seven years of insecurity, and the economic devastation it has caused the city. There is a lot of hardship in Sderot and as outsiders we try and ask ourselves what we can do to help.

However, after having spent some time in the city, I came to realize that we should also be asking ourselves how Sderot can help us.

Over the years Israeli society has become extremely divided along ideological lines. Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv. Dati vs. Hiloni (Secular vs. Religious). Right vs. Left… The friction between the different factions has become more and more obvious.

Despite this divisiveness that prevails in many parts of Israel, the Sderot community has realized the importance of overcoming their differences, and working together to improve the situation in the city.

This morning we met with Afikim BeNegev, a group of young religious Zionist families who are making a point of moving to Sderot to strengthen the town, and it is the only community in Sderot whose population is increasing.

In the afternoon we met with Givonim an NGO (non-governmental organization) run through an Urban Kibbutz in Sderot, whose members come from the secular, Labour Zionist movement generally affiliated with socialist ideology.

Despite obvious differences in their worldviews, the two organizations have the common goal of improving the quality of life for the people of Sderot. Instead of jostling over ground and providing overlapping services, the groups decided to work together. They put aside their ideological differences and instead focused on making their common vision for Sderot a reality.

The leaders of these two organizations, along with the leaders of the Sderot Matnas (community centre) and other organizations in the city, sit down regularly to discuss the most pressing issues and how they can be effectively addressed. The collaborative approach taken by the NGOs in the city has done more than just enable services to be provided more efficiently. It has also helped to break down certain social barriers. Despite the fact that Afikim BeNegev and Givonim may never align ideologically, the interaction between the organizations has the potential to change the way people see each other (at least in Sderot). By creating human relationships between people from opposite sides of society, human faces can begin to replace stigmas, and dialogue to replace disparagement.

If there is any positive influence of the kassams on Sderot, it is in the change it has affected in the unity of the people. The city is a true Or La’Yisrael (a light unto the people of Israel), showing the great potential our people has if we can only learn to work as one.

Jul 25

As I sit here indoors in air-conditioned refuge from a scorching Tuesday afternoon in Eilat, I realize that I am experiencing life in a state of Israel totally different from the one I had always conceived in my mind. I now see the strong Israel that is a safe haven for Jews from anywhere in the world juxtaposed with the beleaguered Israel that suffers the sting of attacks from inside and out. When I visited Jerusalem last week, I stayed right in the heart of the city. The city I saw was vibrant and very busy, but in a way peaceful too. This is the city I look forward to living in next year. When walking around Jerusalem on a normal beautiful day, it’s hard to imagine the soulful city being reduced to tears by a terrorist attack. I personally could not even picture this happening in real life, and not just in the collective nightmares of Israelis. Maybe this is because, despite everything I’ve seen on the news, I’d never actually been inside the country when an attack occurred.

Until about 20 minutes ago. I just found out about today’s tragedy in Jerusalem. I don’t know any specific details yet, about the number of casualties, the damage done, or the identity of the driver of the bulldozer. What really matters to me is that Israel’s hard-earned peace was shattered once again. The country has barely had any time to rejuvenate itself after last week’s gut-wrenching deal with Hezbollah; not to mention the eerily similar terrorist attack on Jerusalem a few weeks ago. Maybe today’s incident hits home so hard because I spent time last week in the exact spot where the attack occurred. Maybe it’s because my friends in Jerusalem are currently in lockdown mode at their hostel. Or maybe it’s because I’m starting to realize that every attack, bombing, or murder is more than just another scar on the psyche of Israel. The whole concept seems a lot more tangible now, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. Now I’m finally starting to understand a reality where construction workers in bulldozers devastate the streets of Jerusalem, and where rockets rain down on Sderot, where Israelis must live in a state of constant alert and perpetual pain.

But the sun keeps on shining, the palm trees flap calmly in the wind, and B’nei Yisrael keeps on living and breathing. Like Israel, Eilat is full of contradictions. It’s a place where you have to look beneath the surface, constructed with tourists in mind, to get a true sense of what the city really is. There are some truly perplexing things about Eilat. The city and the neighbouring Eilot Region are home to a university, a college, a world-class marine biology institute, the thriving Arava Institute environmental studies program, and an ambitious yet practical vision of becoming the world’s leading innovator in the field of renewable energy. As well, many impressive, UJA Federation-supported programs and initiatives exist to lead students to fulfill their potential, and to keep at-risk kids out of harm’s way. Despite all this, there is not a single chemistry teacher at any of Eilat’s 17 elementary or high schools. This is one problem that Eilat’s now-advanced social and educational infrastructure has not been able to solve. It seems almost unbelievable that this can be true in light of all programs designed to propel students, both struggling and promising ones, towards success. But that’s just how Eilat is – you get a different story every time you speak to anyone new. Some have infinite hope for Eilat’s future. Some plan to leave as soon as they can because they see no reason to stay. Some see a city benefiting from a partnership with Toronto that is leading the city towards economic and social self-sufficiency and success. Some see a city with its head barely above the water, only buoyed by Toronto’s aid. Whether thinking optimistically or pessimistically, the truth is that Eilat has come a long way and has a well-constructed infrastructure in place, as well as many dedicated citizens. However, it faces many challenges, and is still working to win the confidence of many volunteers and residents. But ultimately, this city that lies on the frontier of Jewish civilization is like Israel itself – it’s here to stay.

Jul 21

From Moses to Abraham Lincoln the quality that every leader must possess is the ability to make his vision one that is shared by the masses. Brilliant ideas, penetrating analysis, and undefeatable determination are all important, but if you cannot make your goals the same as the goals of the population you cannot be successful.

This morning we met the mayor of the Hevel Eilot region, Udi Gat. He explained to us the vision that UJA Federation of Greater Toronto had worked so diligently with him to create regarding the Hevel Eilot region. In his words the goal is to make Hevel Eilot into “the silicon valley of renewable energy”. Why and how the region is fit for this goal is a long explanation - some of which was explained to us, and much of which was beyond the scope of our short visit, but, nevertheless, the project was carefully measured out and planned.

In the comfortable air conditioned office of the mayor, the plans seemed detailed and well thought out, and the targets were clear. Mr. Gat was clearly excited about the opportunities for the region and there was obviously a lot of time spent designing strategies to reach their goals. We were introduced to those in charge of managing the Renewable Energy project for the city, and they showed us step by step how they planned to proceed, what technology they were going to use and so on.

However, what really made me believe in the potential for this project to succeed was a chance comment made by a resident of Kibutz Keturah. While talking to one of the managers of ‘Keren Kolot’, a pluralistic Jewish learning centre located on Kibbutz Keturah, we asked her why she decided to move from New Jersey to a kibbutz in the Negev? She told us how she moved as an ideological young adult believing in her capacity to make a difference in the land of Israel. When asked if she felt she had lived out her vision she responded with a smile. “I haven’t personally changed the world, but I am part of a community that has done a lot; now we are starting this solar energy project, and soon we, from this small kibbutz in the Negev, could be changing the nature of energy supply in Israel!”

The excitement and pride in her eyes when talking about this energy project made the meetings we had had in the morning that much more meaningful. The vision that the leadership of Hevel-Eilot together with the leadership of UJA’s partnership in Eilat-Eilot had created for the region has taken hold. It is no longer just a dream drafted in a cold office building. It has become the vision of the people in the sun soaked kibbutzim of the Southern Aravah. Now that the goal is one that is shared by all the reality is so much closer.

On the day that we mourn the anniversary of the breach in the walls of Jerusalem so many years ago, I began to see firsthand the plans for the rebuilding and rejuvenation of our ancient homeland.

Jul 21

Adam Winer – 2nd blog entry

On Thursday we traveled from Jerusalem all the way down to Israel’s southernmost tip, where the scenic and resilient city of Eilat is located. The first thing that struck me about the city, upon looking out of my hotel room balcony, is how close it is in proximity to other nations – I could see an oversized Jordanian flag flapping in the breeze to my left in Aqaba, with Egypt just across the bay to the right, and Saudi Arabia’s shores a short swim away.

In addition to being located far, far away from Israel’s political, geographic and demographic centers (so much so that it merits 2 of its own airports), Eilat faces multiple internal challenges. Firstly, as the relatively small size of the city’s population (about 50,000 residents) shows, it is not the easiest place to move to, or the most accessible.

As well, the city’s economy is based almost entirely on tourism-something that UJA Federation and the Eilat - Elot area, UJA Federation’s partnership region, are in the midst of changing. Many parents (some of them single) must work long hours at minimum wage jobs. This leaves kids with nothing to do, especially at night and during the summer, when many start getting into trouble. A final problem (for some, at least) is the often-oppressive summer heat one must face when venturing outside. The temperature routinely climbs into the high 40’s.

However, Eilat’s citizens and students are working hard to make their desert outpost a blooming oasis. One such group of people is the Commando Friends, a UJA Federation-supported organization of students who walk the city’s streets and parks at night, attempting to connect with at-risk local kids on an informal basis. They try to build trust and personal relationships with the kids, and offer them guidance, advice and support.

Another group we met with was the Gulf Rangers. They are local teenagers who spend time learning about the environment, helping the community, and scuba diving in the bay to clean up garbage underwater. Apart from my unexpected encounter with a temperamental sea urchin, seeing the Gulf Rangers in action was a great experience.

By far the most eye-opening experience we had, in my opinion, was our Shabbat spent with the local religious community, which developed from nothing over the past few decades. Ari and Maya and their family were kind enough to host us. We were fortunate to learn a great deal at their table, and at the 3 synagogues we visited (one in the local Yeshiva, Ayelet HaShachar). This community is unique for several reasons. Although it is a very dedicated and visible religious community, it does not attempt to preach to others or “convert” them to Orthodox Judaism. Rather, they are accepting of everyone, and work together in mutual respect with the rest of Eilat to build a better city. They offer a more optimistic view- change is possible, as change has already happened with the growth of this community. The open and accepting manner in which the community coexists with the rest of Eilat seems to be an effective and sensible approach. I left the religious community after Shabbat in very high spirits, confident of Eilat’s ability to be a great city.

Jul 17

The past few days have been rife with emotion here in Israel. The prisoner exchange, in which Israel released numerous prisoners including the infamous terrorist Samir Kuntar in return for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, missing since June 2006, was completed yesterday. Today the two soldiers were buried. The grief over the death of the two boys is accompanied by a sense of finality and closure, allowing the families to begin the long stage of mourning and recovery. At the same time the questions in Israeli society over the prisoner exchange are only beginning. Was it worth it? There is no right answer. Many say that Israel must demonstrate to its citizens that no soldier will ever be left behind; alive or dead. In a society where everyone is supposed to enlist in the army, it is essential that the people have faith in the army’s dedication to its soldiers. Others feel differently. How many more people will Kuntar kill? Is it worth it for two, already dead, bodies to risk so much more death and destruction? These are just some of the tough questions that Israel is confronting in the wake of the prisoner exchange. Kuntar has already clearly declared his intentions to continue Imad Mugniyeh’s legacy (terrorist killed by an unclaimed car bomb earlier this year – Lebanese accuse Israel, Israel has denied involvement).

Nevertheless Israelis continue to live their lives. We arrived in Eilat this afternoon greeted by the sight of throngs of people checking into the city to celebrate the beginning of their summer holidays.

This evening we met some volunteers in the ‘Commando Friend’s program, one of the many social welfare programs in the Eilat/Eilot region supported by UJA Federation. The program sends university students out to the streets to talk to young people who prefer the streets to their homes, which are often troubled. These commando friends spend time on the streets at night talking to kids about drugs, alcohol, sex, the army and anything else they may want help with. While the commandos did not think they had the ability to revolutionize the culture of the city, they did see positive changes within individuals and recognized that they help to give these youth at risk a sense of priorities and optimism about the future.  

Afterwards we spent some time at the youth centre climbing wall, and having spent a summer working on wall climbing staff at a camp I offered to anchor some people while they climbed. On the drive home back to the hotel, Shani, a student activist who is accompanying us in Eilat, asked me if I remembered the first woman that climbed while I was anchoring. “yeah, why?” “Her son was killed in the second Lebanon War, the climbing wall was named after him”.

Despite the seeming calm on the surface, everyone has been affected by the state of insecurity in Israel. The questions about the terms of the prisoner exchange are not abstract theoretical moral questions. The decisions made regarding these questions have severe repercussions on people and their families. While no one has the answer to these questions, they must be continually asked, and the effects on real people must be analyzed, in the hope of moving towards a stronger and more secure State.

Jul 16

Hi to all readers, this is Adam checking in from the holy land. We just arrived here yesterday, but this trip is definitely off to a fantastic start. After a surprisingly bearable flight, we enjoyed a tour, literally on the run, of Jerusalem’s old city and the area surrounding our hotel. This was followed by a great dinner and introduction to our program. In a nutshell, we have been sent here to investigate the many self-made communities comprised of young Israelis with similar values, as well as the many social action initiatives that UJA Federation of Greater Toronto is involved in. Many of these are examples of social welfare entrepreneurship by young Israelis. We are trying to determine what aspects of these programs, movements and ideologies can be successfully translated to a different society (i.e. Toronto).

We received an enthralling update on Israeli political and foreign affairs today from Ha’aretz journalist Aluf Ben.  We also began to delve into the issue of bridging the gap between the religious and secular residents of Israel. We met with Renana Pilzer, who was kind enough to host us in her home. She spoke to us about the Elul beit midreshot across Israel. They are informal learning settings in which people from all kinds of varying religious (and non-religious) denominations can meet to discuss myriad Jewish topics and issues, making use of biblical texts as well as a pluralistic, open-minded and modern philosophy. Elul is a perfect topic of examination for us, as it is not a product of Israel’s rabbanut and religious authorities, which tend to be polarizing forces for many. Instead, it started when yeshiva and university students began studying together. Only later did it become more institutionalized. We were lucky to come into contact with such a unique approach to community building on our first full day on the job overseas.

To summarize, the trip has been great to start. I enjoyed a breakfast full of mysteries today, including an as-of-yet unidentified fruit that tasted like pear infused with cinnamon. Hopefully more adventures await us in Eilat, which we depart for tomorrow. 

Jul 16

For the next 3 weeks, Torontonians Noam Pratzer and Adam Winer will be blogging from Israel, as they travel country from one end to the other. Both Noam and Adam are there on behalf of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, on a young leadership development program. They will be connecting with young Israeli’s and with the many social welfare programs that UJA Federation is involved with.


Noam Pratzer is 20 years old. He spent 15 years in the Toronto Jewish day school system and graduated from CHAT in June 2006. He took a gap year to study in Yeshiva in noam-pratzer-copy.jpgnoam-pratzer-copy.jpgIsrael and is now an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Noam is planning to major in PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) and Jewish Studies. His hobbies include running, playing guitar, and hockey.

adam-winer2.jpgAdam Winer is 18 years old and has lived in Toronto his whole life.He recently graduated from the Wallenberg campus of TanenbaumCHAT High School and is spending next year living in Jerusalem on a gap year program called Kivunim. As part of this program, he will be travelling in Europe, Asia and Africa. After his gap year, he plans to attend McGill University, studying General Arts, with a focus on international politics, global issues, Jewish studies and writing.