FROM OUR CEO
I want to open with wishing everyone Happy Hanukkah. This Hanukkah, my heart is heavy. As we gather in safety and in comfort, I am reflecting on a Hanukkah experience I had over twenty years ago in Ukraine. I had the opportunity to take fifteen college students from America, who were paired up with fifteen college students from Kyiv, to lead Hanukkah programs throughout Ukraine. After the fall of the former Soviet Union, there was a resurgence in connecting with Jewish life and customs. After years of not being able to practice Judaism in the FSU there was a yearning to learn more.
Through the work of Federations, the Jewish Agency, the JDC and others, informal Jewish learning opportunities were organized to teach teens and young adults about the holidays and customs. In turn, these students would bring their experiences home with them and share it with their families. Through a grant from the Jewish United Fund of Chicago a program was created to partner these college students to go out into the shtetls and teach. From small towns to large cities, we had teams of students teaching about Hanukkah. We would be in homes with one or two people or at community centers with hundreds of people—it was amazing!
As I think back to those joyous visits twenty years ago, I am troubled by the continuation of the war in Ukraine. I know, through our work and the work of our partners in Ukraine, the Jewish community will be able to observe Hanukkah but not as joyous as it should be.
The Jewish Federation of the Desert’s 2023 Annual camping is underway. Thank you to those who have already made a gift. I and others will be calling over the next several weeks and months to ask for your support. We will also ask you to make a separate gift of support for Ukraine.
Below is a photograph of the first home we visited in Ukraine. As the students started singing traditional Hanukkah songs, the eyes of the woman sitting at the end of the table opened and she started singing and clapping along. Her children and grandchildren were surprised as they had never heard her sing anything Jewish. These visiting students brought back memories for her from a time before when Judaism was not allowed to be practiced.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Lion of Judah Conference
This weekend some of the most influential philanthropists from around the world will be gathering in Phoenix for the Lion of Judah Conference. Lions of Judah is a movement of women who are dedicated to supporting and raising funds for Jewish causes. Women philanthropists are the change-makers and community-shapers of the world. They are sisters and daughters, mothers, and friends, compassionate and committed women at every stage of life and career. Federation's Women’s Philanthropy engages Jewish women in the fulfilling work of making the world a better place. In every community, they are building and supporting Jewish life for today and for generations to come.
During this year’s conference, Fran Kaufman will be recognized as one of the extraordinary women from 58 Federation communities who are the 2022 recipients of the Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award, recognizing female leaders who embody the spirit and vision of Lions of Judah through a commitment to tzedakah, tikkun olam and community service.
The conference will feature sessions and dialogue around urgent issues the Jewish community is facing and opportunities to effect impact through philanthropic giving. Guests will hear from a variety of thought-leaders, activists, and industry leaders, including award-winning journalist Katie Couric, Rep. Kathy Manning, Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Academy Award Winner Marlee Matlin and more.
The Lion of Judah is a giving society for women who donate at least $5,000 to their Federation's annual campaign. These women are among the most dynamic philanthropic Jewish women in the world, deeply involved at the local, national and international level. They also have the opportunity to endow their gift to ensure flourishing Jewish life for generations to come.
The Jewish Federation of the Desert’s Lion of Judah event will take place on January 16, 2023. Contact Leslie Pepper if you want to attend or learn more about how to become a Lion.
In the near future, I will ask the women who are attending the conference to share their experiences with the community.
Kaf tet b’november
Last week I introduced the holiday celebrated by the Ethiopian community and now a holiday in Israel called Sigd. This week I want to draw attention to a very important date on the Israeli calendar kaf tet b’november. If you are interested here is a quick Hebrew numbering lesson: the letter kaf כ is 20 and tet ט is 9, so, known as November 29th. November 29th, 1947 marks the day the UN General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution that adopted the plan for partitioning Eretz Israel. Which led to the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948. I mention this because this year Israel is celebrating 75 years of independence and we are celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary this year on April 30th with a community wide celebration (details to follow in the coming weeks).
I also think it is interesting in Israel almost every city has a street named Kaf tet b’november. On a side note, when someone tells you they live on November 29th Street you immediately are walking on a modern Israeli street. When I first moved to Jerusalem in the 80s, I had a friend that lived on kaf tet b’november street and I would smile and chuckle when I made it to the street. Smile, I think out of happiness that we as a Jewish people have a place we can call home.
Speaking of Israel:
I am working on a mission to Israel for September of 2023 (working dates are Sept 4-12th). A mission is a unique way to experience Israel. We will focus on seeing where and how our allocation dollars are used and we will visit some very interesting sites. This mission will be designed for people who have been to Israel before not necessarily for first timers. I will say though, if you haven’t been to Israel before and you want to go this will be a great experience and will inspire you to go again. I will have details in a few weeks. Feel free to drop me an email if you are interested in this trip.
Antisemitism isn’t my favorite topic to write about or discuss, but I have to say it dominated most of my conversations this week. Following the Saturday Night Live monologue by Dave Chappelle and the commentaries around it, I thought it would be helpful to revisit the definition of antisemitism. While I was sitting on the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel (as an associate member) we had a discussion around the definition of antisemitism as it was being proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The IHRA defines antisemitism as: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jews or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
One of the tropes that Chappelle implied was Jews run/control Hollywood—“it’s a lot of Jews, like a lot….not a crazy thing to think ....but a crazy thing to say out loud.”
So, where does this trope or stereotype come from? Andrew Lappin, writing for the Jewish Telegraph Agency explains it this way….As such, Jews (particularly recent immigrants) were able to thrive in show business in a way they couldn’t in most other industries. Once they were in, family ties or the general phenomenon of affinity groups often led to them elevating other Jews in the industry: For example, prolific Jewish producer David O. Selznick, whose credits include “Gone With The Wind,” “Rebecca” and a huge string of other hits in the 1930s and ’40s, spent many years at MGM, run by his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. CLICK HERE TO READ ARTICLE!
Antisemitism dates back thousands of years and will probably exist long into the future. Besides monitoring incidents in our community, the Federation believes education and advocacy are needed to teach and inform people about why it is harmful. Dave Chappelle used his profession as a comedian to address the current wave of antisemitism. One of my perceptions of his monologue about antisemitism is he normalized it, and in doing so makes it okay to make light of antisemitism (not sure if that was his intention, but that is the way it came across to me).
I can write more on this topic, and I am sure I will, but it is important to understand that one reason we are seeing so much more anti-Semitism in social media and the town square is because it has become okay to make fun of Jews.
On an unrelated topic or maybe not, the UN came out with the world population estimate of 8 billion people. If there are on 15-16 million Jews in the world, we are only .2% of the world population.
Microlending takes a new form in Israel. Spark IL is an interest free loan program that connects the lender in the diaspora or in Israel to new businesses in Israel. Starting a business anywhere is challenging. With the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Ogen Group, Jewish Federations and others are providing interest-free loans to help entrepreneurs get started. What is unique about this program is that the lender gets to know the business. Plus, when the business pays back the lender the lender can reinvest the money in another business or cash out the loan.
I have been an active purchaser of Israel bonds for a long time and when I learned about Spark IL it reminded me of the value of Israel Bonds. You buy a bond and when it matures get more money back and at the same time you are helping build the country of Israel.
Spark IL is designed to help businesses that are not typical. Spark IL connects business from different parts of the country representing the diversity of people across the country working in many markets. For example; Ethiopian, Haredi, Israeli Arab, LGBTQ or Women Led. Most of the recipients are usually from outside of a major city such as the Negev, Galilee, Golan Heights and the outskirts of the major cities.
On this last trip to Israel, we had the opportunity to meet one of the businesses that received a loan and as of today paid it back. Hoshen is a Judaica gift shop in Jerusalem on the popular Emek Rafaim street. Hoshen’s story was so compelling that it met the qualifications to be accepted into the program even though it was based in Jerusalem.
Here is Ziva’s (Hoshen’s owner) story:
I have been working at Hoshen since I was 17 years old. A few years later my boss moved to Canada and made me the store Manager. Soon thereafter he decided he could not own a store from that far away and offered me the chance to buy it. I leapt at the opportunity. This store is my baby and I believe in it so much. I work hard to provide a beautiful cross section of merchandise to our customers, including a selection of pieces that are made by those with disabilities. Corona-virus has hit the store very hard. A bulk of our business came from foreign tourists, so when Israel closed the borders, we had to pivot. We quickly enhanced our e-commerce site and managed to skate by. We now need a loan for cash flow, creating new marketing materials, and to purchase fresh inventory that will increase revenue. With your help we can continue providing beautiful items that will be used in one’s home for years to come.
If you are interested in investing or learning more about Spark IL please check out the website www.sparkil.org or contact me.
The Jewish Calendar
During the time between Rosh Hashana and Simchat Torah some in the Jewish world take a little pause. I have found that it is a time that connects one to the Jewish calendar. As I walked outside last Sunday night and I saw the brightness of the full moon, I contemplated the importance of why the origin of the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle. There are many reasons why, but I like the connection between the full moon to the Jewish Festival holidays. I am not trying to provide Jewish education here. It is just a glimpse into the long-standing traditions that fills Jewish history.
Jewish peoplehood is a strong component of what we do as the Jewish Federation of the Desert—we want to connect all of us no matter our interests or passions. We are linked together whether we agree on things or not. We cannot escape nor ignore that no matter where we are in the world, we are connected. We know this because the text in Torah scroll that is read in every synagogue in the world is the same.
The style might be a little different, but the words are the same. Each Simchat Torah we rewind the Torah and start over again. If you haven’t had a chance to experience the rewinding of the Torah, I recommend you do so at some point in your life. A technique that I happen to enjoy is getting a line of people sitting and the Torah is placed on the knees (some places put a talis on their lap, so the Torah doesn’t touch the clothes).
Then from one end to the other end of the Torah is rolled completely open. What is interesting with this process is the Torah is completely open and if you walk from end to end you can see the whole Torah and the unique structure that is there, how sections are separated and other special features. Then when everyone has had a chance to see the Torah it is rolled back up and ready to read Bereshit-in the beginning....
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
The issue of anti-Semitism
A common theme running through many of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur conversations revolved around the issue of antisemitism. I have found over the years the lead up to the High Holy Days, anti-Semitism seems to be on peoples’ minds. I completely understand that. Historic threats to Jewish Communities often come at this time of the year.
The added attention on synagogue security and media focus on the holiday enhances that concern. This year was no different, except for antisemitic flyers, graffiti and physical attacks on Jews going to synagogue that were reported across the country, I guess there wasn’t much to be concerned about. "What?” you might shout, “There shouldn’t be any of these incidents.” You are right!
Speaking of antisemitism, I want to invite you to a webinar we are hosting next week with Lana Melman. As part of the Jewish Book Council author series, we were able to arrange a virtual presentation with her on her new book; Artists Under Fire: The BDS War against Celebrities, Jews and Israel. This book is an incredible resource on addressing antisemitism through the lens of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting artists and celebrities who perform in or support Israel.
Lana Melman is an attorney, a 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry and the CEO of Liberate Art Inc. Since 2011, she has been a leader in combating the cultural boycott (BDS) campaign against Israel working both behind the scenes with the people artists trust the most —their representatives-and in the public discourse. Set in the world of entertainment, Artists Under Fire: The BDS War against Celebrities, Jews, and Israel, helps readers understand the connection between the growing distain for Israel and rising global antisemitism and offers a step-by-step plan to combat it.
Hillel Director, Eran Vaisben, and I will engage with her about the current state of the BDS movement and challenges college students have today in dealing with antisemitism and antizionism.
In closing, we will observe Sukkot next week. On a personal note, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. The sukkah reminds us of how fragile our world and lives are by living in a temporary structure for a week. Looking at the devastation of the recent hurricane there are people without even a shelter over their heads. The prayer Hashkivenu that we say on Shabbat that resonates with me and makes me think of Sukkot now more than ever, "Spread over us your shelter of peace."
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach,
Hurricane Fund Relief
I want this update to focus on the impact of hurricane Ian that has significantly impacted Florida and the Southeast.
In the coming days we will observe the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. I think it is important to acknowledge the devastation that has taken place as a result of hurricane Ian. Jewish and other communities have been significantly impacted. Many people will not be able to observe the Yom Kippur holiday. We are learning more and more of the impact on the Jewish Community. It will be weeks if not months or years before these communities will be able to gather again.
The Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) has established a relief fund to help with recovery. Hurricane Relief Fund. Many of us have friends and relatives that live in Florida; we want to let them know we are thinking of them.
Fasting this year during Yom Kippur might take on different feelings as we think about those whose lives have been upended by recent tragedies.
It is customary to ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. If I have done anything to offend you this year, I ask for your forgiveness.
May you be inscribed in the book of life. Have a meaningful fast.
Happy Rosh Hashanah
I want to wish everyone a sweet, healthy, and prosperous New Year! First, we all observe and experience Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in different ways. No matter how one observes the holiday this time of the year, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) connects us as Jewish people. We who continue to carry on customs and traditions and pass them on to the next generation; l’dor v’dor. Sunday night at sundown we transition from 5782 to the New Year 5783. In past updates I wrote about the value of the month of Elul, I believe many of you spent time during the month of Elul and reflected on the past year and planning for the coming. I know our paths will cross this coming year and I will be eager to talk with you about the work the Federation has planned for the coming year, and I hope you will join us in our work to care for the vulnerable, strengthen the community and support Jews in Israel and around the world.
This week, as part of the Jewish Book Council authors series we hosted a conversation with Dan Grunfeld about his new book, By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an unprecedented American Dream. This book as well as the conversation with Dan was amazing. He successfully weaves three generations of his family into a memoir that covers his grandmother’s experience during the Holocaust, his father’s story as an immigrant turned basketball superhero (Ernie Grunfeld) and his own story as a top high school and college basketball player who lost out on an NBA career because of an injury but persevered with his dream to play professional basketball by playing in Europe and Israel. This book was one of the best books I read this year! Please check it out. By the Grace of the Game. Our next virtual author presentation will be Lana Melman, Artists Under Fire: The BDS war against Celebrities, Jews, and Israel. This will be at 4:00 pm on October 12th.
Each new year at Rosh Hashanah Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics publishes Israel’s current population. As in years past the overall population of Israel has increased by 187,000 (1.8%). Here is the current breakdown as published in the Times of Israel, 9.5 million residents, 7.069 million Jewish (74%), 2.026 million (21%) Arab and 498,000 (5%) are neither Jewish nor Arab. A few more interesting data points; among Jews over the age of 20 45.3% define themselves as secular, 19.2% traditional but not observant, 13.9% are traditional-religious, 10.7% are religious, 10.5% Haredi (ultrareligious). 177,000 babies were born in Israel last year, 53,000 people died, around 4,000 from Coronavirus. Plus, 59,000 new immigrants fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Check out the full story at Times of Israel.
Once again, wishing you Shana Tova Umetuka, “A sweet and healthy year.”
A lot of interesting news is coming out of Israel these days. If you haven’t picked up on my writing interests yet you will after reading this piece. I feel strongly about addressing current events in Israel.
Several things I am following now and will be writing about include the upcoming fifth election in Israel. In my opinion, nothing beats an Israeli election to learn how Israeli politics works. I find the Israeli elections to be a master class on understanding how representative democracies work or don’t work and how a party achieves power.
A quick recap of where Israel is right now; the very fragile coalition that brought a diverse group of eight parties together to form a government with a weak 61 seats has ended. What happened was, because the government only had the 61 seat majority it didn’t have any room if a member or two left the coalition. That’s what happened. I won’t go into that now. But several members just couldn’t agree with how things were being done and decided to see what a new election and a new government would look like.
When the coalition was formed Yair Lapid said to his partner Naftali Bennett, “as a reward for joining this coalition, even though your party has fewer seats, and I am more popular than you, I think we should share the role of prime minister and you can go first.” Bennett accepted and held the position for one year and a week and then, as the coalition folded, he said to Yair, “It is your turn.”
Unfortunately, the coalition collapsed and no one else was able to form a government, so they have to now go to elections, again, scheduled for November. In the meantime, Yair Lapid takes over since Bennett stepped down and handed the leadership over to Lapid sooner than scheduled. Unfortunately for Lapid, he doesn’t really have a government to lead but he still gets to be Prime Minister, a special type of prime minister, a “caretaker” Prime Minister.
A “caretaker” is a Prime Minister but with the responsibility to just keep the train on the tracks—no real mandate to do anything. He holds this title until the elections and hopes his party can form a coalition so he gets to be a real prime minister.
I will write more about the elections in the next JCN. Please feel free to contact me with questions.
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