JCC Cares visits Israel
Merage JCC, based in Orange County, California, recently sent 19 people – including 11 board members – on a service odyssey throughout Israel. The group spent 12 days touring, visiting, learning and living the phrase, Kol Israel Arevim Zeh L’Zeh, or Every Jew is Responsible for One Another. All 19 of us had been to Israel previously, but this trip proved to be different than any other. It was both moving and fun, most of all, it was inspiring and introduced us to parts of Israel we hadn’t experienced, it left us with a reinforced feeling of pride and that we are all in fact one community.
We visited holy sites and non-holy sites, we did community service and we explored. Above all we came together as a community to experience joy and pain of Israeli society: doctors in Tel-Aviv performing life-saving procedures on foreign children, and at-risk youth wondering where they will get their next meal.
As a group, we were introduced to a variety of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), a version of our nonprofits. We visited NGO’s that provide tools and resources to the most vulnerable elderly, to new immigrants, and to families that struggle.
Furthermore, Israeli NGO and community leaders led engaging discussions about the future of Israel and its people. We discussed a wide range of topics including biases towards Israel in the news, social entrepreneurship, and the Holocaust in the context of Israeli society.
While the trip was moving, sometimes it was also shocking. It started with the traditional Shehechiyanu prayer, celebrating new beginnings, atop Mt. Scopus. On our way our tour educator, Muki Jankelowitz, pointed out the many sights around Jerusalem. Amongst the sights, we saw the new light rail system. He specifically pointed out the landmark noting, “how all of Israeli society comes together, there are Orthodox men waiting next to secular Israelis and Arabs, this is the true Israel.” Not more than an hour later, a disgruntled man purposely drove into the same stop at the light rail killing a baby and a woman and the idyllic representation of the true Israel. While shocked, in the typical Israel fashion of moving on with life, our group took this tragedy as another example of the resiliency of Israeli society. While our trip started on a somber note, we were continually inspired by the strength of Israeli society and their ability to go on with life as normal.
Despite the drama of our first day, we continued through many days of exploration and discovery. Most of the NGO’s we visited, followed a guiding principle of Rabbi Moses Maimonides. Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, is known to say “the highest level of charity is to help people help themselves.” This thought framed the rest of our visits.
We visited, Yad LaKashish, Lifeline for the Old, a nonprofit that provides hundreds of Jerusalem’s needy elderly with creative work opportunities and crucial support services that enable them to feel part of Israeli society and boost their sense of purpose and self-worth. They have workshops that make cards, candlesticks, Kiddush cups, mezuzahs and more. The elderly artisans receive specific financial benefits in return for their work. Not only do these participants receive much needed financial support, they also become part of the Yad LaKashish community, where they find people who speak their language and share experiences. You can see the sense of self-worth and empowerment emanating from them. It was an emotional place to visit and many of our trip participants envisioned their own parents enjoying an organization like this.
We visited the Tulip Winery in Kfar Tikvah, or “Village of Hope”, a community settlement for people with Special Needs. The Tulip Winery strives to allow the disabled community to develop and realize their potential and integrates their residents into the labor force of the winery. The Tulip Winery and Kfar Tikvah is a perfect example of following Maimonides’s guiding principle. The employees of Tulip Winery receive a wage and live in nearby apartments with other members of the Kfar Tikvah community. There they live independently and function as regular members of society. Kfar Tikvah proved to be the embodiment of hope.
A different day brought us to the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. Nowadays any news from Israel covers stories of Arabs attacking Jews or Jews attacking Arabs, but this unique center is working to change that. The center is open to anyone, 365 days a year. They conduct morning programs to supplement school curricula and offer after-school and evening programs for older children and youth, including courses aimed at helping students prepare for matriculation and university entrance exams. During the morning programs, the students from the different schools intermix and are exposed to the traditions and cultures of the different religions. They then return to their respective schools to process what they learned and continue with their regular school day.
In addition to touring nonprofits and visiting sites, JCC Cares engaged with various speakers, including Jonathan Mervis, a professor of social entrepreneurship at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The topics he regales his students – future business and tech leaders in Israel – correlated directly to JCC’s and to the trip participants themselves. He asked and addressed: “what are we trying to achieve and how do we measure success?” The ensuing conversation led by Professor Mervis was both interesting and motivating. To measure success we must first determine the outcome and then we can, in fact, define success. This concept continued to resonate with our trip participants.
The genuine benefit of the trip, was bringing together a group of those truly and wholly committed, both to the idea of community and to investing in strengthening community, as well as inspiring them to work together to see Israel indelibly linked to us.
We may have left as 19 individuals, but we returned as one community inspired to share what we learned, and most importantly, to share our love and pride for Israel. We will use our new knowledge to continue on our mission of Tikkun Olam, strengthening the broader Orange County community one project at a time. Whether it’s preparing Easter Brunch at Ronald McDonald House, providing a day of pampering and empowerment to women in transitional shelters, or hosting a BBQ for underprivileged families, we will take what we learned in Israel and continue to work in the ideal of Kol Israel Arevim Ze l’ze, Every Jew is Responsible for One Another and strive to make the world a better place.