Yesterday while Americans were eating their hot dogs and watching fireworks as they celebrated America’s birthday, I was on a tour bus in Israel with a group of rabbis. We were visiting three important projects funded by the North American Jewish Federations and United Jewish Communities through coöperation with the Jewish Agency here in Israel.
Our day began of course with study! That’s what rabbis do! We studied the notion of tzedakah and philanthropy with master teacher Noam Tzion (who also teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute). And then we boarded a bus to see the practical application of the Jewish ideals of giving tzedakah.
Our first stop was to Susan’s House. Named after a woman who passed away from cancer, this is an incredible arts program for at risk youth. It’s not what you think. It is not art therapy. But it takes kids many who have hit the bottom of life’s barrel at a tender age of 15 or 16 and teaches them not just glass making and jewelry making but the goods they make are sold in the retail store at SusanandArt. The studio and retail store are located in the Talpiot Industrial are of Jerusalem. Artists create the designs and the kids are taught how to make everything from the plates, to glass beads to necklaces. They are paid for their work and working with parole officers and social workers, 67% of the kids are rehabilitated to lives of productivity. Many have drug habits that have to be overcome. The kids are given lots of help. And the creativity of this program teaches them many life skills.
The second program we visited was also for youth at risk but it is a residential program at a youth aliyah village. There are four such youth villages in Israel. This one is for boys and there are 120 residents of this amazing village. For one reason or another they can’t live with their families–maybe they have too many learning or social issues. Maybe their families are too poor. But again these young people are given opportunities for growth and learning and socializing and therapy that put their lives on a better arc. They had a wonderful collection of animals at this youth village-goats, roosters, horses, camels, sheep, and a dog. The children care for these animals as part of their rehabilitation and therapy. There are many social workers and therapists and special education teachers that work with these young people ages 12- 18.
The third program was at Bet Shemesh and is the Ethiopian National Project. As you may know Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews in two major projects-Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. These proud people who lived rural, agrarian lives came to an industrialized country and came from poverty without many resources. It presented a host of issues to integrate the Ethiopian Jewish community into Israeli life and culture. The ENProject trains leaders from the Ethiopian community to help the community decide and determine the best ways to help themselves. How will it preserve its culture? How will it help young people? How will the elders of the community be treated and cared for?
Prior to the creation of this project-helping this community was a hodgepodge of different programs and many came from the outside sometimes without consulting the community itself. The Ethiopian National Project helps empower and strengthen the Ethiopian Jews and nurtures their gifts, talents and wisdom. Impressive. We met their rabbi, and even one young leader whose goal is to be the first Ethiopian Mayor of Bet Shemesh. She was very impressive!
Too often these days–Jewish Federations are knocked as big bureaucracies that don’t do anything. Seeing these programs on the ground makes one realize the potential for good and transformation of lives on an individual basis by the good work of our Jewish Federations in North America. Meeting the young Ethiopian Jewish leaders or the young people who came off the streets of Jerusalem who were previously using and selling themselves to make money to buy drugs and now seeking to better themselves, graduate from high school and even serve in the army in Israel (right of passage here in Israel) shows the positive power of giving to federation. Too often in America-we don’t see the faces of the people transformed. I did yesterday.
To give to the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles click here and you too can make a difference in real people’s lives.