Ever since the YMCA opened on King David Street in Jerusalem in 1933, the building, designed by Arthur Lewis Harman (of New York’s Empire State Building fame), has been a famous landmark; in particular, its iconic tower has been part of the city’s landscape. The tower contained a carillon of 35 bells made by the British bell foundry Gillett & Johnston in the early 1930s. It is the only carillon in the Middle East, but there was one note – in other words, a bell – missing from it. A recent anonymous donation made it possible for the YMCA to order the missing bell from the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands and, in a precisely managed operation earlier this week, a large crane raised and placed the new, 36th, bell into its place in the tower.
In Lakia, Israel, there are 160 women throughout the village who are responsible for designing and developing embroidery materials. (photo from Michelle Sitbon)
Our trip took us to the southern part of Israel, where we traveled to Beersheva. There is a small sign along the way, that you can miss quite easily, and it says Lakia. Lakia is one of the many Bedouin villages in this part of the country.
The Bedouins are a group of nomadic tribes who have lived in the Negev Desert for hundreds of years. Their heritage can be traced back to the traders along the ancient Spice Route, which happened to cross this region. Most traditional Bedouin hospitality experiences include camel riding, Bedouin food and staying inside a Bedouin tent overnight. However, in the village of Lakia, you are probably not going to find any of those things.
When you stop there, you are in for quite a different and unexpected experience. We arrived in Lakia in the middle of a hot summer day at the end of July and our main goal was to visit the Desert Embroidery. As we drove along the unpaved roads of the village, we quickly realized that Lakia might be small, but the Embroidery was extremely difficult to find. There was no sign telling us which direction to go, even though it is a tourist attraction.
When we finally found our destination, we got out of our vehicle and were warmly welcomed by Naama Al-Sana. She is the Bedouin woman who today runs the Desert Embroidery, and also founded the place together with other women from the community in 1996.
As we entered the visitor centre, we saw a display of beautiful art that was recently made by the local women. These women create the art in their homes in between their chores, and they use the money they earn from it to help support their families.
We were invited to sit inside a beautiful and colourful hand-woven tent, while Al-Sana offered us traditional Bedouin coffee that was scented with local spices. She was excited to hear that we had come all the way from Vancouver, as she has a sister who is currently in Canada, studying at the University of Toronto. Her sister often gives lectures about women in the Bedouin society, as a way to keep the history of this region alive.
The Desert Embroidery doesn’t offer the typical Bedouin tent experience, which includes being served a traditional meal. Instead, you will have the chance to contribute to the empowerment of Bedouin women in your own way. When you participate in one of the workshops or purchase any of their artwork, you will be actively improving the life, health and education of Bedouin women.
The Desert Embroidery was known as the Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women when it first began. The business has grown tremendously over the years and there are now 160 women throughout the village who are responsible for designing and developing embroidery materials. They also provide worker training and product marketing, and there is another group of women who work part-time to provide quality control checks on the products.
The system is very well organized. The women visit the Desert Embroidery twice a week to collect embroidery materials, drop off their finished items, learn about new patterns and designs, and participate in educational workshops and lectures. All of the women are allowed to choose how many hours they work, and they are paid by what they are able to produce within that time. A few of the women have chosen to preserve the traditional jewelry-making that was done by previous generations. They spent time learning how their mothers and grandmothers made jewelry and are now creating their own jewelry to include in the Desert Embroidery collection.
The Desert Embroidery is continuing to achieve its goal of providing employment and income for Bedouin women while empowering them and improving their self-confidence. More than 40 different artistic products can be found on display in the visitor centre, as well as other collaborations that help generate revenues for their work. An example of one of those collaborations is with Kibbutz Gan Masarik, which assists with strengthening the coexistence of Bedouin and Israelis.
The Desert Embroidery is also currently involved in improving the education and health of Bedouin children. And they want to expand to other Bedouin communities within the Negev, so that all Bedouin women can achieve economic independence. There are still so many challenges that women face in Bedouin society and this group is trying to help every woman overcome them.
The main reason I chose to visit Lakia was that I wanted to learn about this destination and the work that the Desert Embroidery is doing. My goal is to share what I have learned and to take other travelers to Lakia, so that they can see it firsthand. Of course, such activities aren’t only being done in the Negev region. In the northern part of the country, in the Galilee region, Israeli and Arab women also create traditional artwork to create a change in the lives of women.
I have made a visit to Lakia part of my itinerary in an upcoming small group tour to Israel, because I believe that travel can support and strengthen local communities. Since I am a travel agent who creates itineraries that are art-oriented, this is a perfect way to show everyone that they can appreciate art while making a difference in both children’s and women’s lives.
In the Mishnah Torah, Rambam organized the different levels of tzedakah, or charity, into a list from the least to the most honourable. Sometimes it is known as the “Ladder of Tzedakah.” The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished, by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, by extending a suitable loan or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business. These forms of giving allow the individual to not have to rely on others.
Projects such as those led by the Desert Embroidery can be found around the globe in places like Jordan, Mexico and Canada. When we travel, we know the many ways in which we benefit. However, I believe we should also try to find ways to benefit others as we travel, even in small ways. We should become more involved with local communities and support them in respectful ways that will, among other things, help them preserve their tradition and art.
Michelle Sitbon is an art travel adviser who organizes small group tours to Israel among other art-related destinations around world. For more information, visit yourartvoyage.com.
Matana, a subscription box company from Israel, has a new mission-driven brand and vision. Formerly called Blue Box, Matana, the Hebrew word for gift, signifies the mutually beneficial exchange between the artisans, whose products are included in each box, and the recipients. Since its launch, the company has delivered more than 2,000 boxes with products from dozens of Israeli small businesses.
With a mission to highlight the unique flavours and textures of Israel while giving Israeli artisans a global platform to showcase their products, Matana features a selection of one Israeli vendor’s products in each box, along with a postcard that shares the vendor’s story. Israeli vendors include small enterprises, family-run farms, kibbutzim, social initiatives and young entrepreneurs. Boxes include products that range from Shalva Tea, locally foraged teas packaged by adults with special needs; to Kuchinate baskets, which are woven by African refugee women; to Sindyanna olive oil, which is created by Jewish and Arab women working side-by-side; to Rusty’s Nut Butters and Treats, a woman-led business.
“Every day, I am inspired by the ingenuity of Israel’s artisans working in nature and blending traditional with modern techniques on an ancient land,” said Matana chief executive officer Emily Berg. “Their products are handcrafted with purpose and passion, and tell the rich and multi-faceted story of Israel. We are thrilled to support Israeli artisans and, through them, to share Israel’s diverse fabric with the world.”
A Toronto native who moved to Israel in 2012, Berg developed the idea for Matana when her then-boyfriend, now husband, was called to serve in reserve duty in Gaza in Operation Protective Edge in 2014. During the tense time, Berg wanted to find a way to showcase Israel’s many sides to a global audience while supporting Israel’s artisans, whose businesses suffered during the conflict.
“My fiancé was called to reserve duty and was basically gone from the first until the 40th and final day,” Berg told the Independent in an interview in 2016. “It was a very quiet period. People were not going out much. And, it was the first time I was able to really reflect on my life, purpose and future here.”
Due to the business’s success and the high demand for the boxes, the company has transformed from a one-woman show operated out of Berg’s own Tel Aviv-Jaffa living room to include new partners Elad and Maya Borkow, who run the logistics department from a warehouse in Ramat HaSharon.
Matana (thematanashop.com) offers several subscription options, including a new seasonal quarterly box that features products from several different vendors. The next shipment is scheduled for Dec. 12.
Courage in Motion 2018. (photo from Beit Halochem Canada)
More than 100 Canadian cyclists participated in the recent Courage in Motion (CIM). The fundraising ride, now in its 11th year, has grown steadily in popularity over its first decade and, this year, like many before, was sold out.
The CIM initiative of Beit Halochem Canada, Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel, welcomed cyclists from across Canada, joined by some Americans and Israelis. From Oct. 22-26, the visiting cyclists rode alongside Israeli veterans with disabilities on four fully supported routes, taking them through southern Israel’s archeological landmarks and its landscapes.
With the fundraising drive open until Dec. 31, it is expected that Courage in Motion 2018 will raise approximately $850,000. Cyclists’ efforts enabled members of Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization/Beit Halochem to participate in the ride and will also fund programming at Beit Halochem Centres in Beer Sheva, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which provide individualized therapies, specialized sports rehabilitation training and cultural arts and family-oriented programming.
Lisa Levy, an avid cyclist and national executive director of Beit Halochem Canada, is the founder of Courage in Motion. “I’m pleased that the ride was, once again, sold out,” she said. “It’s evident that our cyclists embrace the aspect of riding alongside those who are directly helped by their efforts. This year, we’re incredibly proud that more than 120 wounded Israeli veterans participated due to the fundraising by our 110 Canadian riders. We are also gratified that many of our Canadian participants feel that they get more out of the experience than the disabled veterans.”
While many cyclists return year after year, several others were new to Courage in Motion 2018. Two of these first-time participants are internationally renowned sports figures.
Toronto-born Keith Primeau was a National Hockey League centre, playing 15 seasons (1990–2005) with various teams. He co-wrote Concussed! Sports-Related Head Injuries: Prevention, Coping and Real Stories (2012) and is now based in New Jersey.
CIM also welcomed cycling champion Eon D’Ornellas. Born in Guyana and having immigrated to Canada, D’Ornellas represented both countries during his career, winning numerous medals. He has owned D’Ornellas Bike Shop in Scarborough, Ont., for 30 years and, in 2011, he suffered a stroke during a club training ride. Like Beit Halochem members, he knows the challenges in reclaiming his life after serious medical trauma.
All Courage in Motion participants enjoyed group activities following each day’s ride, including a night walking tour of Jerusalem and an evening with members of Beit Halochem, who shared their personal stories of tragedy and triumph. Next year’s CIM takes place in Israel Oct. 27–31. Registration is expected to open in March.
The displays at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History educate visitors on natural history, as well as current-day environmental issues. (photos by Ashernet)
Just over a year ago, the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History opened the doors of its purpose-built structure on the campus of Tel Aviv University. The 100,000-square-foot building contains more than five-and-a-half million specimens from every corner of the world, educating visitors in every aspect of natural history.
At the same time as the museum serves to educate visitors about specific specimens, the various exhibits and presentations are a reminder of the frailty of the planet and the responsibilities of all humankind to act responsibly to preserve all the species above and below the waves. It also calls on us to try and decrease the pollution that is degrading natural life and depleting the world’s oceans and natural habitats, such as its rain forests and rivers. Israel is not free from such degradation.
It is not just the quantity of exhibits and specimens at the museum that makes it special, it is also the presentation of the material. As well, there are dozens of friendly, informed museum staff who are only too happy to talk with visitors.
In one sense, the museum has depressing overtones. Many of the species of wildlife that once were found in the region can no longer be seen in their natural surroundings. Visitors are also reminded that fish stocks in the Mediterranean have been depleted over the past 20 years by some 50% due to pollution. In addition, the opening of the Suez Canal has meant that many species of marine life from the Red Sea have ventured into the Mediterranean, via the canal, and wreaked havoc on the Mediterranean’s natural balance.
The museum also shows the harm being caused to the environment by other human actions. For example, it highlights in various ways, including specially prepared film presentations, the danger posed by plastic waste.
The museum presents the history of a world that is unquestionably millions of years old. There are no huge prehistoric animal models exhibited, but there are clear references to the age of dinosaurs. Also, life-size models show the development of humans through the ages. Presumably not wanting to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities, the museum would nevertheless be remiss not to give some scientific explanation for the skeletal remains of both the people and animals that lived on these shores many millennia ago. It is also a sad fact that many animal species of more recent times have been eliminated – because of over-hunting or, in some cases, like the Golan vultures, being almost completely eliminated by farmers poisoning them to protect their flocks.
Throughout the museum there are many opportunities to interact with exhibits that demonstrate or define a particular aspect of nature; for example, comparing a monkey’s hand and its mobility with that of a human. All of the exhibits are clearly explained in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
In addition to the models of creatures and the animals that have been prepared by taxidermists, the museum has a definitive collection of live insects, which are featured in 17 terrariums, as well as almost three million insect samples. This is the largest collection in the museum and includes several types of insects new to science. This provides an interesting opportunity to learn about worlds to which most of us don’t have access.
Among the myriad items in the museum’s collection are those of a 19th-century German zoologist and Catholic priest, Ernst Johann Schmitz, who lived in what is now Israel. Included in the Schmitz collection is the last known bear in the region, from 1916; an Asiatic cheetah from 1911; and the last crocodile from the Taninim River in central Israel. All the species have become extinct in the country.
Nowadays, there is no active hunting of local mammals or birds – the local animals on display are animals that died in nature and have been collected by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Dioramas and interactive displays are located across five floors that are connected by sloped ramps. The curators hope that the museum will increase understanding and knowledge of the natural world. Just as Israel displays its unique archeological treasures, the curators in this museum want to draw attention to Israel’s unique natural history. Despite its small area, Israel has both forests and deserts. The Dead Sea – the lowest point on earth – is within an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the Hula Valley and its collection of migrating birds.
The building of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, the National Centre for Biodiversity Studies at Tel Aviv University – to use its full name – was possible mainly because of a donation of some $40 million by American philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt.
Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Miri Asulin personifies the contradictions of those who live in Israel’s cities and settlements bordering the Gaza Strip.
The 41-year-old mother of seven and principal of a brand-new elementary school in Ashkelon’s southern suburbs, 15 kilometres from the coastal enclave, commutes from her home in nearby Sderot, where she has been living for 26 years since she married. Until the barrage of 40 rockets fired from Gaza on the Sabbath of Oct. 26-27, she had dutifully and quietly followed Home Front Command orders. Though no one was killed in that bombardment, for Asulin it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Addressing a pool of journalists in an air-conditioned classroom in her fortified building – the week before this Monday’s attacks from Gaza, which included more than 300 rockets or mortar bombs that day alone – Asulin asked that we not mention the name of her school since she has not received permission from the Ministry of Education to host the media. But she is unwilling to risk holding the interview outside on a pleasant fall day, lest a Colour Red rocket alert siren begin wailing.
“After 17 years [of rocket fire], I decided not to be quiet any longer about what is happening to us in Sderot and the south,” she began. “An attack on any Jew is an attack on all the Jewish people.”
What was it like that Shabbat as the sirens went off?
“The children were screaming,” she recalled. The worst part, she said, was the feeling of helplessness in the face of a “merciless enemy. We worship life. They worship death. One side has to be defeated.”
She said, “I’m no longer willing to remain silent. I’m not a politician or a cabinet member. I’m a mother.”
Asulin has witnessed the creeping paralysis of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Children have reverted to [being] bed-wetters, afraid to go to the bathroom alone. We’re going to have a generation of IDF soldiers who are traumatized,” she warned.
Ninety-four percent of Sderot’s children have PTSD symptoms, she said.
Mental health professionals treating PTSD say the best strategy for coping with psychological warfare is to maintain one’s daily routine. But those professionals urging resilience are themselves vulnerable and suffering from chronic burnout.
Asulin couldn’t sleep all night following the rocket barrage. “My body is in trauma,” she said. “I’m in shock.”
“With a snake, you cut off its head,” she said. Calling for reprisal attacks, she urged the Israeli government to kill 10 Hamas terrorists for every rocket fired.
As visceral as Asulin’s trauma is, Sderot itself shows few signs of the 25,000 Qassam rockets and mortars that have targeted the city and nearby kibbutzim for 17 years, killing 56 people. The city of 26,000 has no shattered glass, no bomb craters and no burned-out buildings. Superficially, Sderot looks green and prosperous.
Alon Davidi was reelected mayor in the Oct. 30 municipal elections, reflecting the satisfaction – or the apathy – of Sderot’s populace.
“Sderot is one of the most bombarded cities [in the world] since World War II,” according to Noam Bedein, the founder of the Sderot Media Centre. To his abiding frustration, there is no military solution to the rockets fired intermittently from Gaza, he said.
Paradoxically, Sderot has been experiencing a construction boom in recent years, he explained. Founded in 1952 as a dumping ground for new immigrants from Morocco, the development town struggled in obscurity even as newcomers arrived from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and India. The turning point came in 2013, he said, when the rail line opened, linking Sderot and nearby Ofakim and Netivot with Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva. Attracted by low real estate prices and tax benefits, tens of thousands of people have relocated to the former development towns and nearby communities. Construction cranes, new shopping malls and a burgeoning skyline of high-rise apartment towers reflect the wave of commuters who flock to Sderot’s underground train station. Two thousand apartments have been purchased in Sderot since the 2014 war. The population is projected to double in the coming years, to 50,000 people. Relatively few families abandon Sderot, in part because the value of their homes won’t allow them to purchase equivalent housing in the more expensive centre of Israel.
Everywhere in the city, bomb shelters have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain, making Sderot the bomb shelter capital of the world. Hoping to lower the odds in the game of Russian roulette, the ubiquitous reinforced concrete structures have been strategically placed so that one can race to a shelter anywhere in the 15 seconds notice that the siren provides. Every bus stop has an adjoining shelter.
A colourful concrete caterpillar crawls through a playground. There are no steel doors. Bedein explained that the precious seconds it takes a child to pull open a heavy door could mean the difference between life and death. Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel.
Rabbi Ari Katz, the director of public relations at Sderot’s Hesder Yeshiva – where soldiers combine religious studies with army service for five years – has broad perspective on the rockets targeting Sderot. Originally from Chicago, he lived in Gush Katif until 2005, when the Israeli government uprooted the 8,000 Jews living in the Gaza Strip. It was that unilateral disengagement, followed by the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, which created the conditions for the current rocket campaign, he said.
“We’re in a standing pattern, waiting to see what will be,” he said. Standing on the roof lookout point, which offers a panoramic view towards Gaza, one kilometre away, he proudly pointed to the new construction edging towards the frontier.
“They see the cranes,” he said, referring to the people of Gaza. “They think we’re crazy.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addresses a group of local residents in a protected space in the northern Negev city of Netivot on Nov. 13. (photo by Ashernet)
On a tour of the city, Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar told President Reuven Rivlin about how buildings there are protected and about the events of the previous 24 hours. Rivlin also heard details about the work of the psychological and mental support services in the city, and the help given to children and the population as a whole after Monday’s missile launches from Gaza. “We are all under attack, under fire, whose aim is to disrupt our daily life,” said Rivlin. “Your strength gives us all strength. I have said in the past and I will continue to say, the area around Gaza is part of Israel. When the sirens are screaming here, we hear them in our hearts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and all over the country.” The president then visited one of the shelters in the town. In meeting local residents, he repeated appeals to follow the Israel Defence Forces’ orders.
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly this year in Tel Aviv Oct. 22-24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly in Israel, as it does every five years, Oct. 22-24. This time, for the first time, the convention met in Tel Aviv. The event was marketed with the theme “We need to talk,” the provocative title suggesting that the meetup would frankly confront the many points of contention between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
By the time about 2,500 delegates, including a sizeable number of Israelis, arrived at the conference centre, the theme had shifted from the ominous pre-romantic-breakup phrase to the more upbeat “Let’s talk!” Delegates talked among themselves and listened to a plethora of speakers, including Israel’s president, prime minister, leader of the opposition and other elected officials, heads of civil society organizations, a recipient of this year’s Israel Prize and leading figures in the Federation movement.
While some observers – including the organization Am Echad, which placed a full-page ad in the Jerusalem Post – said the conference did not reflect the diversity of demographics or opinion in Israel, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken refuted the criticism.
“I think that we’re never going to have a shortage of people who want to criticize our gatherings,” he said. “I don’t believe that that is actually accurate. When I look around the room, I see kippot on people’s heads, I see people coming from the Modern Orthodox side of the community and I see people coming from the liberal side of the community. We have made an effort, in Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federations of Canada and our Federation, to dialogue with as wide of a group as we can. I think there is a lot of diversity here.”
A two-and-a-half-day conference provides an intensely limited time to address, let alone resolve, the range of issues on the table. Topics included broad issues like the stalled peace process, treatment of Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers in Israel and a Nation State Law that some say undermines the democratic nature of the country. There are also a host of issues that cause friction directly for North American Jews, including the reversal of the promised egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and Orthodox control of lifecycle events in Israel, which negates Reform and Conservative members, who make up the preponderance of North American Jews. If anything, the GA in Tel Aviv was the beginning of a conversation, or the widening of a conversation already in progress.
Some of the divisions were illustrated in public opinion poll results that were projected throughout the convention centre. The percentage of American Jews who believe that non-Orthodox rabbis should be permitted to officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel is 80%, compared with 49% of Israeli Jews. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews believe in God “with absolute certainty,” compared to 34% of American Jews. Among Israeli Jews, there is 85% support for the decision by the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, compared with 46% among American Jews. Support for the existence of a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall stands at 73% among American Jews, compared with 42% of Israeli Jews. Among Jewish Israelis, 42% believe that Jewish settlements in the West Bank improve Israel’s security, compared with 17% of American Jews. Sixty-one percent of American Jews believe that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully, compared with 43% of Israeli Jews.
Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America, illustrated some of the lines of divergence.
“As North Americans and Israelis, we ask very similar questions. But each through a different lens,” he said. “North Americans may ask, after nearly a century of unwavering support, do Israelis really think our opinions should not be considered when it comes to policies that affect us? Israelis ask, why should anyone other than Israelis have a say in the decisions of our democratically elected government? North Americans, we may wonder how Israel can claim to be the nation state of all Jewish people when it doesn’t recognize the value of Jewish practice of 85 to 90% of Jews living outside of Israel. Meanwhile, Israelis feel that, well, we live here, so what makes you think you have the right to define what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state? How is it possible, North Americans may ask, that the chair of the board of Brandeis [University] or a student from Florida are questioned or prevented from entering Israel because of their activism and views? Is this a democracy, or isn’t it? Israelis ask, what gives anyone the right to question our security decisions when we are the ones under constant threat?
“These are just a few of the questions of two proud communities who have learned to thrive in two very different environments; two members of one family who operate in their own political realities, where North Americans are seeking validation, empathy, partnership and understanding from Israel and Israelis who are living in a sovereign state have largely been insulated from a global conversation about Jewish peoplehood. I don’t have all the answers to all these questions, but I can tell you this – we will only find the answers if we start asking the questions to each other and if we really start working together.”
One after another, speakers acknowledged the challenging differences between the two communities, which together make up more than 85% of world Jewry, and then accentuated the commonalities.
“We are not strategic allies,” said Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel. “We are family…. We don’t have shared interests. We have shared faith, a shared history and a shared future – and a very bright one. It may not be easy to have the truly honest conversation, but this is, I believe, what needs to happen.”
Rivlin suggested a “reverse Taglit,” a Birthright-like program for young Israelis to travel to Diaspora communities, summer camps and schools.
Danna Azrieli, who, with Israeli high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Marius Nacht, co-chaired the assembly, has a personal history suited to facilitating a conversation between the two communities. Born and raised in Montreal in a Zionist family, she made aliyah 18 years ago and now heads her family’s business operations in the country, Israel’s largest commercial real estate enterprise. She was born in June 1967, at the time of the Six Day War.
“My mother tells the story of how, when she was giving birth, the radio was on and the doctor would be listening to the news from Israel between contractions,” Azrieli said.
“We have come to this ‘let’s talk’ conversation about our future together from very different starting points,” she noted. “For example, how do we as North Americans begin to understand what we perceive as backward thinking, when women are not allowed to pray at the wall? And yet, the prime minister reneged on the Sharansky Compromise because of the pressure exerted by religious extremists. As a North American, you are probably asking, how could he have done that? Some of you, and I know a few, might go even further and ask, why should I support a country that does not support the way I practise my religion?” On the flip side, she acknowledged the fears of religious Israelis, who see any diversion from tradition as a step toward assimilation and extinction.
“Since I come from the real estate world, I’m going to use an image of an arch,” she said. “An arch is two sides pressing together. North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are like two sides of an arch. We need each other. We need to push against each other to stay strong. By leaning into each other, by providing each other with the right amount of resistance and the right amount of support, we will have the strength to withstand the pressure from all sides. But one side of an arch cannot stand without the other. The art is to find the right amount of resistance, the right amount of pressure and the right amount of dependence and independence to ensure that our two sides will always remain strong vis-a-vis one another.”
She acknowledged the differences over policies, but tried to differentiate this from core support for the state of Israel.
“We don’t give up when we disagree with our leaders,” she said. “Don’t walk away because your liberal sensibilities are insulted. Don’t assume that nothing can change. Things do change, just painfully, slowly, incrementally, and with all of our help. Help by continuing the dialogue. Help by infusing your children with a love of our heritage. Let’s celebrate the good. I am not suggesting that we ignore the things we disagree with. I am simply suggesting that we remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the opposition who recently became head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the growth and successes of modern Israel could not have been forecast.
“No one could have imagined that, 70 years later, [Israel’s] population would increase more than tenfold, its GDP would grow more than fiftyfold, its share within the Jewish world would grow from six percent to 45% and that Israel would become what a great country it is today.”
Herzog, a grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi and the son of a president, added: “Israel is not the only Jewish marvel in the last 70 years. You, too, North American Jewry, are a marvel. The saga of North American Jewry is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring success stories of the modern era and your success is evident not only in your high level of education and income, and in the fact that the number of Nobel Prize winners that you’ve got are over 120, but because your success is palpable in the fact that you are organized, committed and energetic. You donate more than any other group in society, both locally and globally, and your success is manifest in 3,500 congregations, in 150 federations, in 350 JCCs and countless organizations and foundations that you’ve created together into a beautiful, unique civil society.”
He spoke of the historical bonds between the two communities.
“You nourished us ever since we were a helpless newborn,” Herzog said. “We were, we are and we shall always be reliant on one another. Our alliance is profound, is heroic and is eternal.”
He added: “I see the growing rift between our communities and am shaken to my core. In Israel, there are those who shamefully refuse to recognize the great non-Orthodox Judaism of North America and, in North America, there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
“Ironically, in this, the first era in our history when the external existential threats we have faced are greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence. It is up to each and every one of us sitting here together in this hall to look into the eyes of our young generations and see where did we go wrong. The obligation we all share is to listen to their pains, to listen to their questions and to listen to their frustrations and ask ourselves, how can we do it better? We must dare to think anew, dare to act differently.”
Herzog called for a renewed dedication to the Hebrew language.
“Our first act should be to find a common language,” he said. “When I say common, I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure: the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible and the state of Israel. For all of us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss and delight one another, we must return to our national heritage and treasure. We must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew.”
He called on the government of Israel to allocate funds for a program that teaches Hebrew all over the world.
“From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, wherever he or she may live, not only to visit this historical homeland, but to learn the language of the Jewish people,” said Herzog. “Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews from all streams of Judaism – a beautiful language can serve as a tool for unity.”
Other ideas being mooted, he said, include a Jewish “peace corps” that brings Diaspora and Israeli Jews together for tikkun olam projects around the world, and inviting thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel to participate in groundbreaking “startup nation” technology projects.
As head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog promised to “reach out to all of you to advance hundreds of faction-crossing, stream-crossing, continent-crossing dialogues under one common tent. Israelis will learn to appreciate and know the magnificent civilization of world Jewry, while world Jewry will learn to appreciate the achievements of Zionism and the beauty of Israeliness. Reform and Conservative Jews will learn to cherish Jewish orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews will learn to respect the Reform and Conservative. We shall learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another and endeavour to resolve our internal differences through a new Jewish dialogue. All that I ask of you is not to despair and not to give up. Indeed, let’s talk.”
Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, addresses delegates in the parliament’s Chagall Hall. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America began on Oct. 22, a local delegation, headed by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair Karen James and chief executive officer Ezra Shanken, toured Vancouver’s partnership region, the Upper Galilee Panhandle, which includes Israel’s most northerly communities.
Shanken said that a “mirror” volunteer board of community members from across the panhandle region has been created, including people who are sourcing projects, bringing them in and deciding, along with funders from Vancouver, which critical projects within the region will receive support.
“Those can be everything from a kitchen that we just opened that’s helping developmentally challenged individuals learn cooking skills, or we are looking at education programs … really trying to lift up the north,” he said.
The periphery in Israel has always faced more challenges than the centre of the country, Shanken added. Trying to rebalance that situation, he said, involves engaging the people in the partnership region to take ownership of the projects funded from Canada.
“One of the great things that we saw was the graduation of [the first cohort of] something called Galilee Up, which is something we’ve been working on,” he said. “It’s a leadership development program where we looked around the table and said, who’s going to be the great volunteer leaders of tomorrow?”
More than 20 individuals with leadership potential, mostly younger adults in the early stages of their careers, have been brought together, participating in courses at Tel Hai College. On the Vancouver group’s October visit, the cohort pitched concepts that could help improve the region.
Shanken also celebrated the reopening of a medical centre in Kiryat Shmona, for which Vancouverites had advocated alongside residents of the panhandle.
“This was a huge, huge win for us,” he said.
Democracy in Israel
Speaker of the Knesset Yuli-Yoel Edelstein assured delegates that the health of democracy in Israel is strong.
“Purposely misquoting great American author Mark Twain, I can say that the rumour of the demise of Israeli democracy has been slightly exaggerated,” he told a special evening plenary held in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall. “Israeli democracy has been strong, is strong and will be even stronger.”
He encouraged Diaspora Jews to write, email and telephone members of the Knesset with their concerns.
At the same event, Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition, offered an alternative view, warning that the Nation State Law undermines the democratic leg of the “Jewish, democratic state.”
She said that her opposition to the law is not based on what is in the law, but what was left out. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel is a Jewish nation, but guarantees equal rights for all its citizens.
“When the state of Israel was established,” she said, “all the Jewish leaders signed – we’re talking about socialism, communism, revisionism, Charedim – they decided, this is a moment in which they should put aside all the differences and say that Israel is being established as a nation state for the Jewish people, but also giving equal rights to all its citizens.”
This assurance is missing from the Nation State Law, she said.
“And it’s not that somebody forgot it,” she stressed. “It was part of the discussion here. I wanted to add in the first article of this bill: keeping Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The answer was no. Let’s refer to the Scroll [Declaration] of Independence. The answer was no. I said, let’s have equality. The answer was no. Israel is a democracy and we will keep Israel as a democracy, but, frankly, this is a challenge now.”
Livni added that Diaspora Jews who spend a certain amount of time every year in Israel should have the right to vote in Israeli elections.
“Our decisions as an Israeli government affect your lives as well,” she said.
Trauma experts thanked
Stacy Kagan, the vice-mayor of Parkland, Fla., fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Israel, but acknowledged she never envisioned it would be under such circumstances. Kagan was at the General Assembly to thank Israeli emergency responders for stepping up after the mass murder at a high school in her city last February.
“In the days following the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school, grieving and in shock, we received an outpouring of support from across the country, across the world and Israel,” she said. “Within days, experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition were on the ground in Parkland. They were training our local counselors, who were there themselves and unprepared to address the impact of a large-scale attack that terrorized our local residents. The team from the Israel Trauma Coalition was nothing short of incredible. Their experience was invaluable.
“Today, I stand before you not only as an elected official, but as a Jewish woman who has always wanted to visit Israel,” she said. “I’ve dreamed of this but never made it until now. I never could have imagined that I would be here under these circumstances. As a Parkland resident, I come here to express my appreciation to the Israel Trauma Coalition, the entire Federation movement and the people and government of Israel for standing with us. This was our time of need. You showed up. You gave us strength and you taught us how to be resilient. As a wife, a mother and a consoler to those families and children that were taken by this horrible tragedy, I am here to say todah. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”
Danna Azrieli, co-chair of the General Assembly, spoke of the Zionism of her childhood, which was mixed with the intergenerational trauma of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
“I struggle with anxiety and fear that an enemy may lurk in a place I don’t expect,” she said. “I am always vigilant. I’m the graduate of a 95-day outdoor leadership training course, just in case, one day, I will have to survive in a forest. And I hope that my overactive antennae that work overtime all the time and have deeply psychosomatic effects on my health will save me if ever, one day, I am faced with an unexpected horror in a restaurant or dance club.”
Since moving to Israel, she has witnessed brutality on both sides, she said.
“I have been within six metres of a terrorist running down the main street of the city where I live,” Azrieli told the plenary. “I saw his knife. I saw him sweat. I heard the sirens because he had just stabbed a 70-year-old lady in the coffee shop on the corner. And I also saw the total abandonment of morality, the bestiality, that overcame my Jewish neighbours when they ran the terrorist over with a car and hit his legs with a stick as he was face down at the bus stop while they were waiting for the police to arrive. I am a product of all of these things.”
Deborah Lyons, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, delivered an address that repeatedly brought the audience to laughter and their feet. Citing the Federation movement’s commitment to helping people in North America, Israel and throughout the world, she said, “Your goals are nearly interchangeable with those of the Canadian government.”
She said, “We both are committed to supporting the most vulnerable around the world … regardless of background. And we both are strongly supportive of Israel, its future and a deepening, closer relationship with Canada.”
Both federations and the Canadian government are facilitating cultural and economic missions to Israel to strengthen connections, especially in the business sector. In recent months, Lyons said, Canada’s governor-general, prime minister and a large number of senior cabinet officials have traveled to Israel.
“Our international leadership is perhaps best demonstrated by our recent partnership in rescuing White Helmet volunteers in Syria, one of the best moments of my career,” she said.
Along with allies, “Canada and Israel answered the moral obligations to ensure the swift evacuation of 422 members of this incredibly brave civil defence group, and their families. It was the support from Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu and, in particular, the incredible professionalism and heart of the IDF that brought that evacuation about.”
The ambassador added that combined efforts include batting antisemitism.
“Canada has worked alongside Israel to produce an internationally accepted working definition on antisemitism and we will continue to work with Israel to combat this ill everywhere – wherever, whenever,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially apologize for Canada’s turning away of the refugee ship MS St. Louis in 1939.
She reiterated Canada’s support for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians and spoke personally about her experiences living in Israel for two years now.
“It’s a complicated, invigorating and empowering place that can touch every emotion and challenge every belief,” she said. “It’s filled with energy, with incredible vitality and with endless warmth. I come from Canada – I know warmth when I feel it.… It’s simply very alive here.”
The most emotional presentation of the General Assembly was delivered by Miriam Peretz, winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society, whose story of the price Israeli families pay for the security of the nation had audience members sobbing. Earlier this year, Education Minister Naftali Bennett delivered the news of the award to her by arriving at her front door, the same door where, a decade ago, officers arrived to deliver, for the second time, the worst news a mother can receive.
“Ten years ago, on the eve of Passover, three angels knocked on my door,” Peretz said. “They didn’t bring with them the prophet Eliyahu. Rather, they were the bearers of terrible news. My second son, Eliraz, a deputy commander of Battalion 12 of Golani – a father of four little children, the biggest was 6 years old, the littlest was 2 months old; she didn’t know her father – he was killed fighting the terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“As soon as I saw who was outside my door, I ran. I shut the door. I shut the window so no one could enter,” she recounted. “When they finally came in, I begged them and asked them, please don’t say the word, don’t deliver the news. Just let me [have] my son for one more minute. Because, as long as you don’t say this horrible news, my Eliraz still lives for one more minute. It has to be a mistake, I explained, for I had already paid the ultimate price of our country’s survival. A dozen years earlier, my firstborn, Uriel, an officer in a special unit of Golani … was killed fighting the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, if it’s not painful enough, my dear husband, unable to bear the loss of Uriel, died five years after of a broken heart.
“So it was the eve of Passover and we were gathered to the seder without Uriel, without Eliraz, without Eleazar, my husband,” she continued. “And we read … we cried when we read in the Haggadah, l’dor v’dor, in every generation they rise up to destroy us…. There is no mother in Israel that wishes her children to be a combat soldier. When we have these children, we only pray to Hashem to let them be alive, to keep them healthy, but not to be soldiers. And my children, every time, when called upon to defend our nation, they did not hesitate. They said simply, Ima, it’s our turn.”
Peretz spoke of her childhood in Morocco and how, one night, her father told the family that “this night we will meet the Moshiach, the Messiah. I asked my father how he looked? And he said he will come with an open shirt, with shorts and with sandals. This is the shaliach of the Jewish Agency.
“They took us from the alleys of this place in Morocco to this country,” she said. “When we arrived to Haifa, I saw my father kneeling and kissing the ground when he said the Shehecheyanu. I didn’t understand the behaviour of my father and I never imagined that, one day, I will kiss this earth twice, like my father, when it covered the bodies of my children on Mount Herzl.”
She said that, after the death of her second son, she asked: “What can I do with this grief and sorrow? I can continue to sleep on my bed, to cry about my destiny, to blame the government, the IDF – this is not my way. I chose to continue and to hold the life. I chose to look outside … to see all this land and ask myself, every day, what can I do to be worthy of them? They gave their life for me. I didn’t want to waste my life, because life is not how many years you are here. It’s what you do with this minute that God [has] blessed you.”
Peretz has devoted the years since to comforting bereaved families and wounded soldiers.
“She did not choose the circumstances of her difficult life,” Bennett has said of Peretz, “but chose to live and revive an entire people. She is the mother of us all.”
“It’s not only my personal story,” Peretz told the General Assembly. “It’s the story of this land. It’s the story of faith and hope. It’s the story of the price that we pay for the existence of this state.”
Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting in Israel. (photo from IGPO via Ashernet)
On Oct. 28, at the regular Sunday morning cabinet meeting in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, together with ministers, stood for a moment of silence. At the meeting, Netanyahu said, “The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the people who were murdered in the shocking massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh [on Oct. 27]. On behalf of myself, the Government of Israel and the people of Israel, from the depth of our hearts, I send our condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. We all pray for the swift recovery of the wounded.”
He added, “It is very difficult to exaggerate the horror of the murder of Jews who had gathered in a synagogue on Shabbat and were murdered just because they were Jews. Israel stands at the forefront with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, with all Jewish communities in the U.S. and with the American people. We stand together, at the forefront, against antisemitism and displays of such barbarity.
“I call upon the whole world to unite in the fight against antisemitism everywhere. Today, regretfully, we refer to the United States, where the largest antisemitic crime in its history took place, but we also mean, of course, Western Europe, where there is a tough struggle against the manifestations of a new antisemitism. Of course, there is also the old and familiar antisemitism, and that of radical Islam. On all these fronts, we must stand up and fight back against this brutal fanaticism. It starts with the Jews, but never ends with the Jews.”