The Cope Forum

As I have mentioned previously, an amazing added benefit of volunteering in Israel as part of my fellowship has been the opportunity for me to learn about the various programs and services that JDC has developed and is involved in for the spectrum of population and age groups across Israel.

One program that I have had the opportunity of taking part in a few times this year is The Cope Forum, a women’s breast cancer support group through a partnership of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs that provided a platform for women with breast cancer in both communities. The members of this group are all breast cancer survivors or are presently going through treatment and have come together to lend a supportive hand and put aside their differing languages, backgrounds, histories, political views and life experiences . Through the support received in the group, the women are empowered to become advocates for breast cancer issues in their communities.

The project partners believe that joining forces to learn about one another’s experiences will provide an important opportunity to build on knowledge for promoting coexistence among women living in conflict and post-conflict areas.  This sharing of knowledge can form the nucleus of a broader exchange among women with breast cancer, as well as serve as a model for other groups who seek to build bridges between groups in conflict. This is one of many groups that my Supervisor has created as part of the Middle East programs to try and integrate and create connections between the two population groups.

While I have never been against befriending and Arab male or female alike, it has never been something I needed to deal with.  Although I have had the opportunity to meet and socialize with non-Jews and individuals from various communities throughout my college and university studies and work, growing up and being active within a sheltered Jewish community has led me to only having a handful of non-Jewish friends that I consider close.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself in the conference room of the JDC office holding up a small compact mirror so the woman I was dancing salsa and Zumba with could put her hijab back. This was an activity I never really saw myself doing, and especially not in Israel. This program succeeds in setting the parameters which allows the women to get let loose (actually) and gets to know one another on a personal level, beyond their scarves…

I leave every meeting with one recurring line…ONLY IN ISRAEL… as I mark down on my calendar the next meeting!

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Face to Faith

Jerusalem is the spiritual home of the Jews, but it can also be seen as a centre of tolerance and respect for all faiths. Within the past year I have had the opportunity to see the Kotel (The Wailing Wall) from all sides and during various occasions.

The Various A

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One of the most incredible traditions that I was introduced to during my year in Israel is the Ethiopian Sigd Festival. Due to the fact that Ethiopian Jews had been detached from the rest of the Jewish world from 4th Century CE, their Jewish traditions are based on the written and oral bible.  Another way of explaining the extent of their separation from the rest of the Jewish world is that the Bet Israel (Ethiopian Jews) were only introduced to Purim and Tu Bshvat, once they arrived to Israel.

Sigd which means “prostrating oneself” in Amaharic is one of the few Jewish holidays that they kept on a yearly basis and involved the communities fasting and joining the Kessim (High Priests) on the highest point of a mountain as they recited parts from Nechemia and Psalms that discussed receiving of the Torah, traditions and the most important, returning to Jerusalem.

The 1000s of Ethiopians in Israel continue to celebrate this festival through community events and gather together for an Aliyah to Jerusalem. Ethiopians from all over Israel joining together at the Kotel and then celebrating on Armon Hanatziv (Tayelet) where they sing, dance, are lead in prayers by the Kessim and indulge in Ethiopian foods.

For the second year in a row, I attended a Pre-Sigd event at the Gerard Behar Center where Ethiopians performed traditional dances, sang songs in Amaharic and Hebrew and joined together in celebrating their roots and history. Last year’s theme was “Past to Present”. It included Ethiopians dressing up in the Traditional garb, dancing the traditional dances, Kessim leading the audience in prayers and guest performances by Meir Banai and Ethiopian artists (singers, rappers and Kessim in training). This year’s theme was “Returning Home” with guest performances by Esther Radah and Korin Allal.

While I have to admit that I am simultaneously jealous and fascinated by the way Ethiopians can move their body, it is their ability to join together and stand united as one that due to their shared history thatmakes me miss living outside of Israel. It is the ability to feel connected to a complete stranger only because we are both Jews and can relate to one another through our traditions and common knowledge of our past, similar to Ethiopians in Israel that makes me want to leave this amazing country and return home.

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Flying High

Finally, after a long wait 9 months and 10 days to be exact), I finally had the opportunity to join a Mission on a site visit. It was definitely worth the wait! The Mission consisted of a Lay leader and staff from various federations across America (mostly the Mid-West) who are involved in Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) to whom I was proud to share that I am in two of Montreal Federation’s viral campaign videos! 

Getting back to the site visit… I finally had the opportunity to join the Mission because they were going to visit one of the Disabilities and Rehabilitation Division’s (now officially known as Israel Unlimited) programs, Supportive Community. As part of the day’s events, we went on a house visit and then went to take part in an activity for parents with disabilities and their children.

The Supportive Community:

The Supportive Community for People with Disabilities is a program that provides a basket of services that enables disabled persons to live independently in communities around Israel, cope with emergency situations and be involved in the neighborhood activities. Every Supportive community is cared for by one social worker and one “אב בית”, Community Parent. There are 120 households of people with disabilities cared for; and since some households contain multiple people with disabilities, there are 150 people with disabilities reached. Click here for more information

The House Visit:

We had the opportunity to meet with Eva, a woman in her 60’s, a proud mother of 3 and grandmother of 15, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. Eva, who needs a wheel chair to get around, was proud to inform us how she assisted in helping create the Supportive Community in Israel and how much it has changed her life.


Activity with the families:

The group of approximately 15 federation representatives joined 20 families (Parents with disabilities and their children, up to age 17) in decorating, building and flying kites. It was amazing to see adults connecting with their inner-child to build kites and successfully fly them in the very hot breeze of Jerusalem.

Through speaking with the various Mission participants, I understood that their purpose and goal of the trip was to return to their communities, not only to relay to others about the work that JDC is involved in but also pass along personal stories of lives that have been directly changed and improved by the work that we do. It once again reconfirmed for me the importance of JDC’s work,  how privileged I am to not only be part of the team, but even to have  the opportunity to create programs .

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End of a Chapter…

Those of you that have been keeping up with my work and reading my blogs know that I have been involved in a few projects the last few months; JDC basketball team, The Open kitchen מטבח הפתוחBeauty and the Beast, etc.. (click on the link to read previous posts).

Within a period of two weeks, the basketball tournamet I was part of through JDC, play practices for Beauty and the Beast and the cooking classes ended AND I finally presented the work that I had been doing on violence prevention since the beginning of the year. It was an extremely successful to weeks professionally and at the same time depressing on a personal level since everything I have been involved with since the beginning of the year came to an end.

Since at times it can be quiet difficult to convey to others the joy and gratification I have gotten throught my work, I have decided to write about a few of the people I have met on the way!

The Open Kitchen

            The program I helped create with the Center for Independent Living Be’er Sheva (CIL) and Chemicalim  Le’Israel took the form of a cooking class, which promotes and addresses the benefits of healthy eating while learning how to prepare traditional dishes using healthful and affordable ingredients. The program consisted of seven classes that brought together members of the Center for Independent Living and their invitees from other organizations for disabled individuals.  As part of each class, 20 participants aged 14 and up, all with physical and sensory disabilities as well as non-visible disabilities took part in cutting vegetables, mixing and rolling out dough, and executing any other tasks necessary to the day’s given recipe. It not only gave the participants the opportunity to meet other individuals from other associations but also gave them the opportunity to take part in an activity that was accessible to all.

            In the past 5 months, the cooking class went from being an event that people attended as a fun outing to a learning experience that the participants waited for with weekly anticipation and excitement. While the participants vary in many traits, such as age, cooking experience, type of disability and ethnicity, the differences were never a concern. On the contrary, it created a space for people to give each other feedback and share personal experiences and secret ingredients that made their own cooking unique!

About two individuals whom I believe embody the spirit of the program:

Rachel is a very bright, animated and active 50-something year old woman. While she grew up working on a farm in the North of Israel, she is now married with children and grandchildren, and lives in Be’er Sheva. Rachel joined the CIL only a few months prior to my arrival in Israel in October of 2010. Slightly over 2 years ago, Rachel had one of her legs amputated due to an accident at work. She is now wheelchair bound and is unable to work. While she attended the daily arts and crafts classes offered at the CIL, she still had a very hard time accepting her new life. While I knew from the second I met her that she is a very high-strung Sephardic woman with no problem speaking her mind, she lacked self-confidence. When I first started working on the project, it was in conjunction with the manager of the CIL. I decided that I wanted to get one of the members to help me with my project. The manager decided that Rachel would be the perfect candidate, since it would give her the opportunity to work on something and boost her self-esteem. While she was very reluctant and hesitant when we approached her, she agreed to try. As part of her role, she was supposed to be the emcee of the program and start each class by reading a paragraph about that day’s theme, which I prepared for her in advance. As the weeks progressed, she became more comfortable in her role and more accepting of her new body. Rachel had mentioned to me one of the first times I met her that, while she was once an amazing cook, she no longer baked or cooked because of her condition, though she greatly missed being in the kitchen. Now, since starting the cooking classes, she never misses an opportunity to share her helpful tips or divulge her secret ingredients that she uses again not only in class, but since she started cooking again, in her home as well.

David was a timid 17-year -old nearing the end of high school in Be’er Sheva. He arrived to the CIL for our first cooking class not really knowing what to expect nor why he was there. From the first second that I saw him I knew that my personal goal was to get him to open up and feel comfortable!  School in Israel ends at approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, which means that normally, David was not coming directly from school. More importantly, he chose to attend the cooking class instead of spending time with friends and just hanging out, which we all know is very important to adolescents. I already knew that I was making some changes and was able to see some improvements in his personality. However, after not seeing him for two consecutive classes I noticed a marked difference in his demeanor. It got to the point that these classes meant so much to him that he chose to leave his friends and come celebrate his birthday with us at a cooking class that happened to fall on that day. He walked into the room a few minutes late with balloons in hand and sat down as if it was any other day. We took the opportunity to sing happy birthday to him and brought out a cake with candles! On another occasion, he walked into one room and sat down while I was in another room. When I walked into the room, I saw him sitting by the corner, minding his own business, yet when he looked up and saw me his face lit up! He told me during the break that he had actually just come from his graduation party at school and that he was planning to invite the woman from Chemicalim Le’Israel to his graduation for the following week.

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Springtime in Jerusalem: A Retrospective Piece

With the change of seasons from winter to spring, I found myself surrounded by blossoming flowers as nature came back to life.

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” Proverb

But in the past few months, I have found myself surrounded by roses, both literally and metaphorically!

Beauty and the Beast

Approximately two months ago, I got a call from the manager of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) Jerusalem asking me to volunteer in a play at Hebrew University with both disabled and non-disabled participants.

Specifically, she asked if I wanted an acting role. While I did a greatjob in acting in my synagogue’s production of Annie in 2000, it reassured her that it would be better for everyone if I didn’t act.

To this she responded, the show would be, in fact, a musical, so I would be doing more singing than acting. She didn’t know that my musical abilities are even worse than my acting abilities.

While I politely refused an acting role, I did agree to be part of the crew. While I have some artistic talent, I wasn’t sure what my work as a crew member would entail.

I am now head of props and with only a month to go before the play, I have a lot of work ahead of me!

With a cast of 19 people (10 members of the CIL, 8 students from the Hebrew University Theatre Program) a director teacher at the university and two assistants, we are putting on Beauty and the Beast (on wheels). The CIL participants have a range of physical and mental challenges, ranging from blindness to paralysis, cognitive challenges and learning disabilities on varying levels. For the university students in the Theater Program, this theater production was presented to them the same as any other credit-bearing course. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. This is an amazing project that brings students and people with disabilities together to do things they all love: singing, acting and dancing…all while sitting in wheel chairs.

Watching the bonds and friendships that have formed throughout the last few weeks has been eye opening for me as a volunteer. The story of Beauty and the Beast is centered on a rose and the short time that the Beast has to find true love before the rose petals all fall off and die. This play has not only given the two groups of people the opportunity to collaborate, but it has also given the students the opportunity to see the individuality of each actor beyond their disability.

 Test Run at the Botanical Garden

As part of Israel Unlimited a strategic public-private partnership between the Government of Israel, JDC and the Ruderman Family Foundation, one of my co-workers is working to create awareness about environmental sustainability within the disabled population. As part of her project, she is working on implementing program accessible to people with disabilities at the Jerusalem Botanical Garden. We took a sample of our target population on a tour to see what would interest them and explore the accessibility options inside the Garden.

I accompanied one of the participants, Shoshanna, during the tour and activity since she is blind and needed some extra assistance. Shoshanna is also acting in Beauty and the Beast and I have learned that she is a social, bubbly woman with a beautiful voice.  To my astonishment, when I met her that morning at the entrance to the park, I realized that she didn’t know what she was attending.

Shoshanna heard the word participate in a trial and said okay. When I informed her of our morning activities she strongly regretted her decision to come since she hates every aspect – the smell, the texture – of flowers.

It was a beautiful sunny day and all the flowers and trees were in bloom. While I am lucky enough to appreciate the garden using all of my senses, Shoshanna is not as lucky. A basket was prepared for each participant so that they could get up close and personal with each flower, tree and plant that was mentioned during the tour without leaving their seat.

No matter what I said and did during the tour on a train ride and a hands on planting activity at the end, Shoshanna refused to part take in anything and swore that she could tell us each kind of plant by its description and not by tasting, smelling or feeling it. Putting her to the test, the tour guide prepared a few spices and herbs in a silk sack and then proceeded to test the woman by describing the seeds and allowing everyone else to feel and smell. Shoshanna got them all right!

At the end of the day’s events, we went around in a circle and said something about the program. I was really worried about what she was going to say since it was being videotaped.  However, instead of saying negative things about the activities, she brought me to tears. She thanked the tour guide and the Joint for the program and giving her the opportunity to take part in the event. She said, that for the first time in her life, she was able to imagine what the flowers and garden looked like with all the colors and smells even though she could not see. She could picture what the Garden of Eden looked like. By the time she finished speaking, we were all drying our tears. While she still refused to touch or smell the flowers, we officially changed something in her. It was a great and unforgettable experience!

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Tikun Olam – Montreal & Israel

I have now started my 7th month working at the JDC-Israel office and love it. Two questions that I repeatedly find myself answering in the past 6 months that I have been here are:

1) What does it mean to you as a Montrealer working in Israel for the year?

2) Are you making Aliyah?

I had the privilege of growing up in a predominantly Jewish and Zionist community. I have spent a lot of time in Israel, visiting family and friends, participating in short trips to Israel, spending my gap year after high school in Israel and leading a birthright trip. In addition to supporting Israel through travel, I advocated for Israel by organizing educational programs and events throughout my academic career and attending rallies and gatherings supporting Israel in Montreal.

I knew that my father being Israeli and the majority of my extended family living in Israel had something to do with my strong connection and identification with Israel, I never realized to what extent my Jewish education and my involvement in community impacted me until I read this email.

According to an email I received this morning from the FEDERATION CJA Montreal (click here for the full story):

…Three out of every four Montreal Jews have visited Israel, that sixteen per cent said visiting Israel had “the most impact on their life as a Jew,” and that this figure rose to 28 per cent among those between 18 and 24 years of age. In addition, eighty-two per cent of survey respondents agreed that Israel needs our financial support.

While I may not be the most patriotic citizen of Canada, I am a VERY proud Montrealer. I truly believe that it is a great city culturally, financially, etc. but I have always believed that the Jewish community is a vibrant and a great place to raise a family.

My response to the Questions: 
My upbringing as a Montrealer has trained me to be a strong advocate for Israel and I believe that it is this background that has lead me to pursue a career in the Jewish communal world. I cannot think of a more fitting way of showing my appreciation for the education and opportunities that the Jewish community provided me with, than by directly working for Israel on creating social services to help better the lives of people with disabilities. With that said, I look forward to returning to Montreal at the end of this program and continuing the cycle of raising a Zionistic community by integrating everything I am learning throughout this year in the work that I do personally and through my involvement with the Jewish community!

With Israel Independence Day less than a week away, I am waiting in anticipation to celebrate with fellow Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis, in a party at the JDC office, public concerts on the streets, barbecues in parks and pokeys on the beach!

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