Federation CEO Steve Rakitt is currently traveling on the Roots to Wings Mission.
After a restful Shabbat, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s “Roots to Wings” mission continued today with visits to Beit Shemesh and Mateh Yehuda, our Partnership2Gether communities under the guidance of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
We began with a visit to Ein Rafa, an Arab village in Mateh Yehuda, where we were met by 10 smiling Arab and Jewish girls who participate in the Peres Peace Center soccer program. I was inspired by their commitment to learning about each other, the support they receive from their families and friends and the friendships they’ve created. Living only minutes away from each other, this program is the only structured interaction they have and each girl recognizes its importance in building a new future for Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
We spent time with the professionals leading Mafteach, a program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) which trains Haredi men to enter the workforce. Their track record is impressive and is making a real impact for an increasing number of Haredi men who want to work, but don’t have the necessary educational background or skills.
Our group then divided into smaller teams and spread out to spend time with residents of the region for more in-depth conversations and visits. I was with Stuart Kurlander and Margie Glancz and we were accompanied by Daniel Goldman, resident of Beit Shemesh, businessman and volunteer leader. We spent time exploring the Haredi community and several innovative projects in the area. Specifically, we met with…
1. Shulamit an extraordinary woman who founded a social service organization called Uvneh. Seeing the most difficult cases of child abuse, hunger and physical and mental disabilities, Shulamit and her team are relentless in creating a safe haven for those in the Haredi community who need help. She’s a force to be reckoned with, as local rabbis have learned, and she has earned the support and respect of the Social Work Department of the Municipality. Out of adversity – her father passed away when she was 5 and her mother raised 4 children, refusing help from anyone – Shulamit is a shining light and a rock of strength;
2. NetSource, an information technology company whose employees are 98% Haredi women. Providing employment opportunities for community members, with sensitivity toward religious needs, NetSource is a growing (now has 200 employees) resource within Bet Shemesh, offering a welcoming work environment for many;
3. Rabbi Avraham Kopp, who is a force of nature. He founded Ezrat Achim, offering aid and assistance to all residents of Beit Shemesh, excluding no one. They offer an incredible range of services, including interest free loans, rides to hospitals, help in organizing events and gatherings, aid to travelers stranded on the road and more. Rabbi Kopp is Haredi, and insists that the organization help everyone.
We met Alior Babian from Beit Shemesh, one of two winners of the 50th International Bible Contest and a resident of Beit Shemesh. His smile was exceeded only by his mother’s and Stuart Kurlander and I enjoyed extending the congratulations of the Washington area Jewish community to both.
Finally, we joined members of the Ethiopian community in a somber memorial service, remembering the 4,000 Ethiopians who did not survive that long trek across Sudan. Efrat Mekonen, a mother of 5 and volunteer chair of the Ethiopian National Project Committee in Beit Shemesh, tearfully recalled losing her best friend, who drank contaminated water during the trip years ago.
Throughout the day, we gained appreciation for the extraordinary and far-reaching impact of the annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which touches many of the programs we saw. I also came away with a renewed understanding of the complexity of Haredi / non-Haredi relations and how many folks are working hard to create stronger relationships through dialogue and cooperation. And finally, I shed a tear along with many others while being reminded of the enormous effort it took for Ethiopian Jews to leave everything behind and risk death to come to Israel.
There was no Israel for those who perished in the Holocaust. We learned that all too well in Poland. Citizens of Israel – Haredi, secular, religious or not, Ethiopian, European, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – are weaving a complex and delicate tapestry, trying hard to strengthen the fabric of Israeli society, sometimes pulling too hard on some of the threads. As residents of the Disapora, we owe it to ourselves and our children to support Israel, helping to ensure her strength and vitality. The discussion about how best to do so is an important one.
Join us in the conversation!