What is your connection to Israel? A good icebreaker question for a Jewish audience of any age.
It is also a good question to open up the topic about celebrating Israel and its accomplishments, as it is celebrating its 72nd birthday. Israel is a nation among the nations of the world. During this time of crisis in the world, we are proud to see Israel’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not just for its own citizens but for all who can benefit from its knowhow. It is a leader in medical treatments and testing. It creates and uses technology to help mankind. It shares its knowledge about assisting after trauma and continues to run to places to help when it is needed.
Most Jewish young people today have received the gift of a trip to Israel from Birthright during their college years. I do not have official statistics, but I know of several of my generation and older that still have that trip on their bucket list, and are still figuring out how to make it happen.
I have been lucky – while my family had no relatives that lived in Israel, it has been a part of our family’s DNA. We said, “next year in Jerusalem” every Passover and and could picture the possibility. It is what I learned about in Hebrew school, and if we saw a product that said “Made in Israel” in a store in the 1960s and 70s, it was a thrill. I am sure many of us still have an Israeli blue/green metal Judaica piece –jewelry, mezuzahs, bookends, a seder plate, and a menorah are ones I can account for. These items were part of bat mitzvah gifts or sourced from a synagogue’ s gift shop. I had also been influenced by my parents, the generation that experienced Israel’s birth, and hearing about the dancing in the streets in Brooklyn in 1948 when the announcement of the creation of the state was on the radio. We continued to be glued to the news when I was a youngster and teenager hearing about the wars for its survival that followed.
Living in New York City, I experienced the annual Israel Day Parade that brought youth groups and schools to Fifth Avenue. I remember learning a line dance with my Israeli Hebrew teacher that we would perform as part of the synagogue delegation, wearing a white dress tied with blue ribbons. As I got older, the parade offered the social element of seeing friends I had made in United Synagogue Youth, meeting other teens around the city and tristate area.
My first trip to Israel was a sweet sixteen present from my parents, offered as their gift instead of a party. Traveling with a teen tour for six weeks , we saw Israel from end to end, experiencing kibbutz life at Ein Gedi, and a week with Israeli teenagers at Gadna camp, with the most adorable Israeli soldiers as instructors.
I got to visit again in 1980 as part of a B’nai B’rith staff mission. It was a wonderful way to bond with colleagues and learn about the people and projects of B’nai B’rith that have had roots in the country since 1888. It was another view of the country, seeing behind the tourist scene, presenting some of the difficult social issues for Israelis and their struggle living alongside their Arab neighbors. We saw the presence of B’nai B’rith in various form. From a Moshav named for Henry Monsky, to libraries and streets named in recognition of B’nai B’rith’s role in their creation. We were present just months after the B’nai B’rith World Center was established in response to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 478 that in August 1980 called on all member states to remove their diplomatic missions from Jerusalem.
B’nai B’rith provided another opportunity for me to experience Israel at the 1998 International Convention. It was also the occasion to share an Israel experience with my husband and introduce my kids to Israel at age 12 and 16.
The venues were amazing, opening ceremonies at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem, dinner at the Israel Museum with a private tour and a banquet that filled a ballroom with members from around the world.
The closing program included a spontaneous line of dancers that moved between the tables to celebrate the occasion of this event. A special memory was the dedication by the B’nai B’rith Center for Community Action of a playground outfitted for physically challenged children in Hadera.
I had the unique experience of seeing Israel in 2005 as a parent with a child spending their first year in a college program at Bar Ilan University. It was another view, 33 years after my first experience. For this visit, we could tak a bit more time to experience Jerusalem and Tel Aviv , soaking in the historic and cultural sites in Jerusalem and then the beach in Tel Aviv.
When my grandson Jacob was born in 2014, we joked about holding a special upcoming date on the calendar July 2027, for his bar mitzvah. We have since then talked about a summer trip to Israel as a wonderful way to celebrate with his parents and his two siblings. It is strange to think that this summer it will be just 7 years away. But, looking at the events of these past months, it feels like that that may be too long to wait. When we can hopefully see these days in our rearview mirror, and our prayers and social distancing maintains good health , I hope a family trip to Israel will be in the plans for me.
Happy 72nd Birthday, Israel. Hope to see you soon.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai B'rith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. Rhonda has served on the B'nai B'rith International staff for 41 years. To view some of her additional content, click here.
The Gamaraal Foundation in Switzerland has set up a 24-hour telephone hotline to provide support to Holocaust survivors during the coronavirus pandemic. The hotline can be accessed by calling +41 44 931 37 35 or visiting https://gamaraal.com.
The Gamaraal Foundation was created in 2014 with the mission of supporting Holocaust survivors in need in Switzerland as well as engaging in Holocaust education. The foundation earned the prestigious Dr. Kurt Bigler award for excellence in Holocaust education in 2018, together with the archives of contemporary history at the ETH Zürich.
Many Holocaust survivors show incredible resilience in the current situation. I deeply admire the positivity they show. They say we had much more difficult times. I am so proud of the many dozens of volunteers and the team of the Gamaraal Foundation, which has worked nonstop. Many of the volunteers are students and young professionals, the solidarity between the generations is immense and this is deeply touching. This is so crucial now, more than ever before, heartwarming and overwhelming for me to see. I am immensely grateful to all those giving their time to help.
The gratitude that we receive from survivors cannot be put into words. It goes directly to the heart. Most of our work is listening by phone to the survivors, taking them out of loneliness and isolation. The coronavirus pandemic can evoke painful memories among Holocaust survivors. Some are experiencing renewed trauma – the loneliness and isolation which they face during difficult experiences can be exacerbated due to the past they were forced to endure. Volunteers also assist survivors with buying food or medicine.
With demand for assistance on the rise, the volunteers’ team will be expanded in the coming days.
For more information:
Anita Winter is a B'nai B'rith International Geneva representative and founder and president of the Gamaraal Foundation.
I encouraged our leadership last week to call people in their B’nai B’rith circle, simply to find out how they were faring in the Land of the Quarantined. No, we were not asking for money. These calls were casual, “just checking in” phone calls. As a service organization with roots in people-to-people contact, this was a natural outreach for us.
I made 15 calls over barely two days. They were a chance to say, “Thank you,” “Happy Passover” and “Stay healthy.” One person in suburban Philadelphia was so pleased to receive the call that she volunteered to make calls. “We aren’t going anywhere and are looking for things to do,” she said.
One of the calls turned out to be the best kind of call one could hope to have. It was to a household in Hallandale Beach, Florida. The person I was calling was not in, but in the course of sharing my message, I quickly learned that I was speaking to Boris Moroz, 98, who said he was a lodge president in B’nai B’rith Canada in 1943. Yes, you read the year right.
Boris left his birthplace of Lodz, Poland, in 1935, and moved to Montreal one year before his bar mitzvah. He left behind “a lot” of family who perished in the camps. Eventually, Boris would become a homebuilder in Canada and continue in the construction business in Florida, and along the way he learned French, Hebrew and English to go along with his native Polish and German.
His lodge presidency as a young man in Canada (Mount Scopus Lodge) coincided with B’nai B’rith’s centennial. Wrap your mind around the fact that that was 76 years ago. This fact would make Boris as close to a lifer as anyone could be. Perhaps he’s the longest-ever member of B’nai B’rith International.
Boris remembers where he was when the United Nations voted on statehood for Israel. “I called a B’nai B’rith meeting to listen to the vote,” he recalled. “Of course, there was a time difference, but this was so important to us, so we stayed up for it. It was terrific.”
Other phone calls to people in the Land of the Quarantined yielded fascinating nuggets about our brothers and sisters. One person is writing a book; another person who I had heard was not feeling well said he was feeling “great.” He had just had a heart valve replacement.
So, these small “just checking in” phone calls took less than two hours to make over not even a two-day period. They delivered wonderful results. The value of such good will and chesed is, well, priceless. Let this time of quarantine be a time of connection among our B’nai B’rith family.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
On Dec. 6, 2019, B’nai B’rith Senior Vice President and Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee Chair Rebecca Saltzman travelled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to meet with staff from the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS) and present a check for $25,600 to aid mental health programming for survivors of the horrific attack on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 worshippers dead and wounded many more. Funds will also be used to assist first responders and support a community memorial.
Saltzman was joined by Executive Board of Directors member and Pittsburgh native Steve Smiga, who serves as regional president, and B’nai B’rith members from the Aaron Grossman Lodge of the Allegheny Ohio Valley region.
Staff members from JFCS and representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police Benevolent Fund received the check. Jordan Golin, president and CEO; Dana Gold, COO; Stefanie Small, director of clinical services; and Rebecca Remson, director of development and communications, were present. Jonathan Gromek and Susan Hillen, the president and vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Benevolent Fund, also attended.
This is Saltzman’s account of B’nai B’rith’s disaster relief efforts in the wake of the mass shootings and her involvement meeting first responders and community service personnel in Pittsburgh.
It’s one of those horrific events where you always remember where you were when you learned about it.
On Oct. 27, 2018, I was at the gym, just starting up the treadmill. I looked up at the televisions overhead to see the headlines about a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. As I began walking slowly, I started to feel panic and wasn’t sure if I should stop and get off. Instead I began to run, and I ran hard. Growing up and living in Centennial, Colorado, I wasn’t a stranger to nearby tragedies. I was a sophomore sitting in class at the neighboring school next to Columbine High School when the catalyst of mass school shootings took place. I saw a movie at the Aurora movie theater in 2012 just two nights before yet another tragic mass shooting. But the synagogue attack was different. Though further away, this hit closer to home, closer to my heart.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had been installed as one of B’nai B’rith International’s senior vice presidents and appointed as chair of our Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee. Helping others after a disaster is a core commitment of an organization that I am so dedicated to and so very proud of. Since 1865, B'nai B'rith has responded with millions of dollars of needed assistance to help the victims of hundreds of disasters – both natural and man-made – around the world.
In the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life attack – which marked the single deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history – B’nai B’rith set to work doing what it always does: helping. We launched a campaign to assist the victims, synagogue and community.
Six months later, there was another tragic attack on a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California. I realized then that we, as a people, are under attack again. And that is why organizations like B’nai B’rith are so important. Through 176 years of service, B’nai B’rith has played a vital role. Making the world a safer, more tolerant and better place is the mission that still drives our organization. We monitor and combat anti-Semitism and other global human rights abuses. Through our office of intercommunal affairs, we play an active role cultivating religious tolerance and cooperation internationally.
As I presented the donation to local community members and first responders in December, a year after the deadly gun rampage, I asked them to accept the contribution as a token of our support for continued healing, as we stand together, strong as one, and fight against hatred – because when we say never again, we mean never again. It was humbling to meet first responders and tell them how grateful I was that they came to help defend our people that terrible day.
As a licensed professional counselor who has worked for over a decade in community mental health, it is personally meaningful to me to present a donation that will go toward mental health support for survivors and a program to assist first responders. In choosing where to offer aid, our Disaster Relief Committee wanted to focus on the mental health needs of the community, which often don’t show up right away. Psychological symptoms of trauma may start months, sometimes years after a traumatic event. These symptoms can cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships.
The donation B’nai B’rith made will also support a memorial that will remember the victims of the attack that Shabbat morning, from Tree of Life Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I walked around the Tree of Life Synagogue and I saw impressive artwork created by young people, wrapped around the fencing surrounding the building – what a beautiful response of love and healing to contrast the horrors that occurred on that site.
Rebecca Anne Saltzman serves as a senior vice president at B'nai B'rith International and as chair of the Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee. Saltzman also sits on the Executive Board of Directors, has served as the marketing chair and is past chair of the Young Leadership Network (now called B’nai B’rith Connect). In 2012, Saltzman earned the Label A. Katz award, an honor for individuals under 45 who have demonstrated outstanding service to the totality of B’nai B’rith and have worked to achieve the goals of the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership program.
Photos from the Disaster Relief Check Presentation to the Pittsburgh Healing Fund:
Artwork from the Tree of Life Synagogue:
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