IMPACT: Jewish Learning Brought to Life

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A message from Laura Axler, a PJ Library mom:

It’s funny, but on the same day that Federation asked if I would participate in the PJ Library program, I was rearranging our children’s bookshelves. Like most young families, we have lots of children’s books that my eight-year-old, Jordan, and five-year-old, Becca, love to read. But when we started receiving Jewish books through PJ Library, they earned a special place in our collection.

PJ Library, a program funded in part by Jewish Federation, sends out beautiful, age-appropriate Jewish books to thousands of children—all for free. Every month, Jordan and Becca eagerly await their personalized envelopes, tearing them open and running with their new treasures to me and my husband, Eric, for story time.

Reading PJ Library books together has really helped our interfaith family learn and grow in Judaism and Jewish values. The first book we received, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, quickly became our favorite. It tells the story of a Jewish farmer who retailors a striped overcoat into smaller and smaller items. It’s based on an old Yiddish folksong, so it taught them about Jewish culture, and they loved the story’s award-winning illustrations.

When Jordan and Becca began to age out of the program, I decided to take them to a few PJ Plus events I’d read about, like a challah cover-making workshop and a Havdalah ceremony. Eventually, I started planning and hosting events on my own, including a community-wide Chanukah party. Some families that attended were like mine, with only one Jewish parent. Others families had two. But we all had one thing in common— the desire to bring Jewish learning to life for our children.

At dinner the other day, Eric was reminiscing about our PJ Plus Havdalah, so Jordan and Becca brought out their braided candle and spice box. We ended up having our own ceremony right there at the dinner table!

As we lit the candle and watched the wax drip down, we inhaled the spices and smiled. Our story began with books, but PJ Library has become so much more to us. It’s about connecting families like ours to the Jewish community, to our Jewish story, and to our Jewish future.

You can help Federation continue to provide free programs, like PJ Library, to engage children like Jordan & Becca today in three ways:

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IMPACT: A Helping Hand for Ethiopian-Israeli Youth

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When Brancha, an Ethiopian-Israeli girl, was in ninth grade, her mother died. Her grades plummeted, and she was placed in a low-performing vocational high school that held little interest for her.

Fortunately, Brancha had advocates at her side from the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), a Federation partner agency, whose youth programs she had attended for two years. ENP staff helped her refocus on academics and negotiated a new school placement for her. Now a high school graduate, Brancha serves as a police officer in an elite IDF unit.

Brancha’s triumph despite adversity is common for students at ENP, which works to advance the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society. ENP helps youth in 27 communities overcome the cultural, social and emotional challenges of life in Israel. More than 4,300 students get educational support in its scholastic assistance programs, while nearly 1,900 at-risk youth benefit from 19 outreach centers that provide extracurricular activities, emotional support and leadership opportunities.

Because family support is so critical to the success of Ethiopian-Israeli students, parental involvement is integral to ENP’s programs. Counselors include parents in school-based meetings, mediate difficult family conversations and run workshops that help parents build more effective communication and relationship skills.

“ENP’s work with Ethiopian-Israeli children and youth is making a major impact,” says Roni Akale, ENP’s director-general, who notes that the matriculation rate among participants has nearly reached the national Jewish average of 65%.

ENP’s impact lasts well after participants leave high school. Shira, who grew up near ENP’s Youth Center in Beit Shemesh, now volunteers there as part of her army service. “My work is so meaningful here, especially because I am serving as a personal example to each of the kids—as a soldier, as an Ethiopian-Israeli and as one who came from this very neighborhood,” she says. “They see where I am today, and I hope—and know—that they can reach even greater heights.”

You can help Federation continue to support our partner agencies, like ENP, to empower children like Brancha today in three ways:

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IMPACT: Healing Trauma with Help from a Furry Friend

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Five-year-old Guy has spent his entire young life in Ashkelon, an Israeli city only miles from the Gaza border. He knows what to do when sirens warning of incoming rockets wail: run to the nearest safe room as quickly as possible and hide.

So this summer, when a rocket nearly destroyed his neighbor’s house, Guy was safe in a shelter. But witnessing the hit greatly shocked him.

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (3)He became obsessed with a shrapnel fragment from the explosion. He burst into tears at the sound of each siren. Between alarms, he refused to leave the house or sleep in his own bed, clinging instead to his mother. He also became violent, throwing objects and even biting people.

These behaviors are typical of post-traumatic stress, a diagnosis shared by tens of thousands of children and adults in Israel’s south. To confront this epidemic head-on, Jewish Federation’s Stop the Sirens campaign has allocated millions of dollars to support intensive trauma and psychological counseling programs—like the innovative one that’s now helping Guy recover.

Guy’s new best friend is Hibuki, a therapeutic puppy doll developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a Federation partner agency. JDC’s therapists told Guy that Hibuki was scared and suffering. As Guy talked to Hibuki about its feelings, program therapists gained valuable insight into Guy’s own fears.

“Ordinarily we don’t have a way to know why a small child is responding to the trauma they have experienced in a certain way,” said Dr. Flora Mor, a JDC psychotherapist. “I am repeatedly amazed to see the change that begins to take place once a child ‘adopts’ a Hibuki doll.”

After a few days, Guy was significantly more relaxed and his violent behavior decreased. He gave up his piece of shrapnel, began participating in activities and no longer clung to his mother. And as he continues healing, Hibuki will be a treasured companion.

Hibuki is only one of the many invaluable tools Federation partner agencies like JDC, The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israel Trauma Coalition and others are using to help alleviate the impact of a summer of conflict.

You can help Federation continue to support our partner agencies today in three ways:

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IMPACT: The Country of My Heart – A Journey from France to Israel

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I grew up in Nice, France. But when I was three, I left with my family to Israel. We lived there for two and a half years before my family decided to move back to France. After that, I vowed that one day, no matter what, I would return to live in Israel. Deep inside, I knew it was my true home.

I wasn’t brought up in a Jewish community and my family wasn’t religious. Even so, I never felt comfortable living in France as a Jew. I was always mindful of the threat of anti-Semitism.

In recent years, it’s gotten worse. Synagogues and schools have been attacked; kosher markets broken into. Today, wearing a kippah or amagen david, or showing any signs of being Jewish, can be dangerous. That’s why I designed a special magen david necklace for myself that isn’t so easily recognizable.

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (4)A year and a half ago, I made the decision to leave France for good. I made aliyah with the help of Federation’s partner agency, The Jewish Agency for Israel.

After I arrived, I lived with other olim—recent immigrants. We understood each other and could share our experiences. I started volunteering to help other newcomers like myself.

Then I found a job. And I’m happy to say that I have just become a counselor with The Jewish Agency.

It’s not always easy to be here—to meet people and to understand a new culture. But despite all the difficulties, I never doubted my decision to make aliyah.

During Operation Protective Edge, my family asked me to return to France. They told me it’s not safe in Israel. But I told them it’s not safe in France. Every day is a battle there to live as a Jew.

That summer, rioters took to the streets of Paris, smashing windows of shops owned by Jews and throwing firebombs. I wish my family didn’t live in such a hostile and dangerous place.

Today, I’m proud to say that Israel is my home and my country. With the help of Federation, I have made aliyah and can finally be a Jew without fear. But there are so many others who cannot. Which is why I’m also so grateful for Federation’s continued support.

We’re all one Jewish community, and I’m very proud to be a part of it. For that, Federation, I say: todah rabah.

Through Federation, you can help empower Jews like Carole Sebbah, and assist in their Aliyah efforts, today in three ways:

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IMPACT: Finding Family in Israel

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Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Hannah Larson has a unique perspective on serving in the Israeli military given that she was born abroad. “As Israeli soldiers, we are creating a safe haven for Israelis, and for anyone that wants to come to Israel. We don’t just protect Israel, we protect Jews from all over the world.”

Hannah herself grew up in the U.S., in a family that imbued her with a love of Zionism. “I always had the idea of moving to Israel and making Aliyah,” she says. “But I had never been and needed to see it for myself.”

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (2)Hannah saved up her money, learned Hebrew, and joined Sar-El, The National Project for Volunteers for Israel. It didn’t take her long after arriving in Israel to confirm that she’d been right about her hunch – at age 19, she was on her way to the Jewish State for good.

Jewish Federation was with Hannah during every step of her journey. Through Federation supported Garin Tzabar (a program of The Jewish Agency for Israel), Hannah was able to make Aliyah and quickly integrate into her IDF combat intelligence unit.

Garin Tzabar also provided a home away from home for Hannah and other “Lone Soldiers” – those serving in the IDF without immediate family in Israel.

“I didn’t have family to come back to on weekends from the military,” she says. “Through Garin Tzabar, I spent my first two months in Israel living on a kibbutz. That provided me with a home and friends – an adopted family – to have Shabbat dinners with. It was really amazing.”

As her time in the military came to an end, the Federation-supported “Wings” program (also funded by the Jewish Agency) helped prepare Hannah for civilian life, while the Nativ program for new immigrants gave her an essential understanding of Jewish identity in Israel. She’s currently studying counterterrorism, and plans to remain involved in safeguarding the security of the Jewish State.

“Jewish Federation is the reason I made Aliyah. It’s the reason I plan on staying in Israel and building a family here,” Hannah says. “It has helped me make my way, and connected me with so many Israelis.”

Hannah – now one of those Israelis – tells of one family she lived with for a few months while searching for an apartment of her own. “They opened their home and their hearts. They took me in as if I was one of their kids. That ‘Israeli hug’ – that’s what made me stay here.”

You can help us honor our soldiers in Israel, and assist in their Aliyah efforts, today in three ways:

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IMPACT: Helping the World Over

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With partner agencies like JDC operating in more than 70 countries around the world, odds are you’ll run into Federation on your travels. Sheri and Steve did in Morocco.

Originally a haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Morocco has been a home to Jews for hundreds of years. Today the small, vibrant Moroccan Jewish community is a particularly active JDC partner, achieving an exceptional degree of self-sufficiency and serving as an example for other Jewish communities the world over.

Jews have been living in Morocco since Roman times. Moroccan Jewry – a unique community with a rich heritage – has undergone significant demographic change over the past half-century, with emigration largely responsible for reducing its numbers from their mid-1900s peak of 240,000.

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (7)Today, there are some 4,000 Jews in Morocco living among a predominantly Muslim population of over 32 million people. Despite this minority status, the bond between Morocco’s Muslims and Jews has remained strong, and Jewish communal life in Morocco offers a model of coexistence that many in the West are unaware of.

The Jewish community of Morocco has succeeded in maintaining a strong Jewish identity and is very well organized. It includes two Jewish school systems, welfare services, medical facilities, and homes for the aged. The majority of Morocco’s Jews – between 3,000 and 3,200 – live in Casablanca, a thriving center of Jewish communal life and home to over 20 functioning synagogues, three Jewish social clubs, kosher restaurants, and most of the community’s infrastructure.

While the Jewish community remains vibrant and dynamic, the community is cognizant of the need for security measures at Jewish schools and institutions. This, together with a rapid rise in the cost of living, has created financial challenges for the community that have necessitated cuts in allocations affecting a range of welfare, medical, and school programs.

JDC works in cooperation and partnership with local leadership and the Council of Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization representing Jewish communities in Morocco, to address these challenges. Together, they offer financial and technical assistance to Jewish institutions and programs in Casablanca and seven smaller provincial communities to help in providing necessary health, welfare, and educational services for Morocco’s Jews.

You can help us support our partner agencies, such as JDC, today in three ways:

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IMPACT: Summer Camp for All

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Gavin Mason almost couldn’t go to summer camp. A 9-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, Gavin was rejected by a summer program that couldn’t accommodate his significant developmental delays. His mother, Lynne, was used to fighting for him, but with money scarce and expenses high, it looked like Gavin would have to sit this summer out.

And then Federation stepped in.

Through a Federation-supported scholarship fund, Gavin was able to attend a local Jewish camp, which not only accommodated him, but welcomed him with open arms.

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (5)“Far from treating my son like any sort of a burden, the camp staff all behaved as if we were doing them a great honor by giving them the opportunity to share their camp with my son,” says Lynne. “They assured me, as one voice, that people with differences have something unique to contribute to the community. They were eager to see what Gavin would contribute and how they could help him do that.”

The staff and volunteers went out of their way to create an inclusive environment for Gavin. And to help the non-verbal boy communicate with others, a student volunteer created handmade picture symbols to represent his camp experience, including Hebrew words like “tevah” and “seder.” Long after camp was over, those symbols helped Gavin talk about his camp memories and his favorite summer activities.

The camp’s dedicated staff also helped Lynne feel comfortable giving her son more independence. “My outlook and the way I saw Gavin changed. I felt less fearful for his future when I saw that he could engage successfully with others without me,” she shares.

Although Lynne and Gavin aren’t Jewish, this Federation-supported camp provided a new kind of family for the Masons. “When the camp staff treated Gavin as a gift and a blessing, I knew we had common ground,” says Lynne.

“It is far too common to look at children with special needs as a burden, not cost-effective and too much trouble, and then to provide services to the absolute minimum the law demands, and only when pressed.” Federation, she says, sees Gavin as so much more than that; it sees him as she sees him. “It takes faith to see a child with special needs as a gift. And Gavin is truly a gift.”

Through a donation to Federation, you can help give the gift of inclusion and the joy of summer camp today in three ways:

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IMPACT: A Thank You Letter from Camp

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We believe in singing Hebrew songs at the top of our lungs at Jewish summer camp! We know that Jewish summer camp is one of the most meaningful and life-changing experiences for kids and teens—and one of the most expensive.

The Federation’s Needs-Based Camp Scholarship Fund is just one example of how we are helping those in need and engaging the next generation in Jewish life! Jewish summer camp is a life-changing experience, proven to impact Jewish identity into adulthood. Unfortunately, it is also becoming increasingly cost prohibitive for families.  Federation is here to help and together with the camps WE are making a difference!

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Here is the latest – 2015 Camp Scholarship Statistics:

  • Total number of applicants = 234 (compared to 228 in 2014)
  • Total awards = 209 (compared to 168 in 2014)
  • Total dollars awarded this year – approximately $94,000
  • Maximum awarded per child this year was $1,500 for families in greatest need

You can help children locally and abroad experience the joys of camp today in three ways:

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IMPACT: A Jewish Summer Camp with International Flavor

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Every summer, 1,300 young Jews from 20 countries travel to rural Hungary to attend Camp Szarvas. Funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Federation partner agency, Szarvas merges the fun of sleepaway camp with the celebration of Jewish peoplehood.

For many campers, Szarvas serves as their first encounter with Judaism. Founded in 1990 to help Jews in Europe seeking a return to their roots after the fall of Communism, Szarvas continues to help the many Jews still exploring their Jewish identities. Through swimming and Israeli dancing, campfire sing-alongs and soccer games, campers learn about their Jewish heritage and form lifelong friendships that span the globe.


#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (10)In Their Own Words: From Szarvas Campers to Jewish Leaders

“Because of Camp Szarvas, I knew at age 12 that I wanted to work with the Jewish community…This background helped me become a part of the team that worked on opening the first Jewish elementary school in Croatia (and the former Yugoslavia) since WWII.”
Maya Cimes, Jewish Educator, Croatia

“[At Szarvas], I discovered that Jews were living not only in Israel and Bulgaria, but in dozens of countries around the world. The Jewish summer camp experience helped me clarify my identity and made me strive for more knowledge about our history and traditions. I will never forget that at Szarvas I had my Bar Mitzvah – an important Jewish milestone that I probably wouldn’t have had back at home.”
– Martin Levi, JDC Program Coordinator, Bulgaria

“I come from a mixed marriage; my mother is Jewish and my father is not….Growing up, I wasn’t really aware that I was Jewish, because it wasn’t something mentioned in our home. Szarvas helped develop my Jewish identity and it affected a lot in shaping me into the person I am today.”
– Mina Pasajlic, Co-Founder Haver Serbia NGO, Serbia

You can help children locally and abroad experience the joys of camp today in three ways:

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IMPACT: Federations Protect the Most Vulnerable

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When the cold winds whip through Dora Pozel’s house in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, Federation helps her brave the harsh winter with warm clothes, blankets and a recently installed gas stove, electric heater, and radiator.

Likewise for 64-year-old Stelian Obada, who lives alone in a remote corner of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. Stelian suffers from cerebral palsy, severe arthritis, glaucoma, and central retinal artery thrombosis. Each winter, Federation makes him a little more comfortable with food packages, as well as coal, gas, and firewood to heat his home.

#60DaysMJF Images for E-mail and Blog (11)This help for Dora, Stelian, and thousands of other Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU) is provided by the Jewish Federation’s partner agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through JDC’s Hesed network of more than 2,600 social welfare centers, the Winter Relief program provides boots, coats, blankets, coal and wood, and helps cover heating costs for Jews from Belarus to Kazakhstan.

Last year, JDC’s Winter Relief program helped nearly 15,000 elderly and 8,000 children survive a bitter winter—children like Alexander Petrov’s five girls and two boys, who live in a small Ukranian village with no gas supply or running water. Without the JDC-provided coal, the Petrov children are often drafted to join their parents in a nearby forest to collect firewood.

For many in this part of the world, where some of the poorest Jews in the world reside, Jewish Federation support is literally the difference between life and death. The social security they receive from their governments is insufficient, and they often are forced to choose between spending what little money they have on food and medicine, heating or home care – basic human needs that no person should have to go without.

Jewish Federation and JDC’s partnership is the only safety net that exists for the FSU’s most vulnerable. With their support, Dora, Stelian, the Petrov children and so many others have a better chance at surviving the winter.

You can help inspire Dora, Stelian, and thousands of other Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU) today in three ways:

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