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Mission Possible!

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Federation 2013 Campaign Chair Hope Silverman, Women's Philanthropy President Vivian Lieberman and Federation Director of Campaign Management & Administration Rachel Berg recently traveled as part of the JFNA 2013 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission.

This premier Campaign program of the Jewish Federations of North American kicks off each year's Annual Campaign, providing an "up-close-and-personal" look at the social infrastructure supported by our overseas partner agencies, complete with visits in Israel to Federation-funded programs.

Our Palm Beach delegation began their trip in Vienna on the way to Odessa and then Israel.

Following are blog entries, photos and video from Berg.


FIRST DAY IN VIENNA

We arrived in Vienna and immediately started our tour with 13 other women from Federations across the United States as part of the pre-mission to the JFNA Campaign Chairs and Directors trip to Odessa and Israel.

On the first day, Friday, we toured sites relevant to Jewish life -- the two Jewish museums, monuments and memorials to the victims of the Shoah, and Jewish day schools.

What struck me most was at the newly renovated Jewish museum. The permanent collection included religious artifacts dating back hundreds of years from places that influenced Jewish life -- in particular a Chanukiah shaped like the crescent moon from Bosnia (a Muslim country). Also on display was Judaica that survived World War II -- most likely buried and recovered by those fortunate enough to survive Hitler's atrocities. And, finally, a collection of anti-Semitic objects; the donation of a very successful Austrian Jewish businessman who apparently collected the items because he wanted to see what they were about and to understand them...and so that no one else could buy them. The display itself was even more interesting; all of the items -- including figuringes and walking sticks -- were backwards! You saw the front of them by looking into the mirror that they were displayed against but, in doing so, you also had to look at yourself. The representation of "does this resonate with me, not as something to view in disgust but rather as something that I agree with?" was awe-inspiring.

We visited the only synagogue in Vienna to survive the war. As we walked upstairs to the women's section, I looked up to be surrounded by a pale, sky blue ceiling with hundreds of gold stars in concentric circles just beneath golden rays coming from the skylight in the center. The sun and the stars; the light that guides us in day and night. Down below the men were praying, enough for several minyanim -- black hats, knitted kippot, young and old -- all Jews, celebrating together.

When I finally figured out where we were in the prayer book (it being in German), I was suddenly overcome with real, raw emotion. I chanted Lecha Dodi, welcoming Shabbat.

I saw a father blessing his children, the same way that my father-in-law blesses mine each Shabbat.

I saw a mother kissing her husband with a "Shabbat Shalom," the same way that I kiss mine.

We are all one people, no matter where we live. We are tied together by one thing -- Judaism. We are doing what it takes to survive and live our lives Jewishly. This tiny community in Austria (esimated at 15,000-20,000 Jews) is really no different from the community in Palm Beach (estimated at 135,000 Jews).

The night ended with a festive Shabbat meal in a kosher restuarant, no different from the meal that I would have made at home -- gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken and potatoes.

We connected. One people with one common heritage with one common goal; the survival of the Jewish people. It all came full circle on a very emotional and uplifting day.

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Other great shots from the mission!


SECOND DAY IN VIENNA

Day Two began with a bus tour of the city. The majority of Jewish residents in Vienna live in what is known as District 2 (there are almost 30 districts). Along Berg Street (no relation, I presume!), and the surrounding areas, there are kosher restaurants and supermarkets, a kosher butcher and many Jewish-owned shops.

When we stopped for lunch, we were joined by three Jewish students who had only been in the city a couple of months. Two were from Tehran, the third from Shiraz. They were all in transit on their way to the United States; refugees from religious discrimination in Iran. The process to immigrate to the U.S. is: a resident who lives in the United States (there is a large Iranian and Jewish-Iranian population in Los Angeles) applies for refugee status on behalf of the person. Coincidentally, it is HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) that has the State Department contact in Austria to process paperwork with those seeking entry into the U.S. There are currently five religious minorities that qualify for asylum (though not everyone will be granted it): Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian, and two Christian sects. Once the paperwork is completed, HIAS forwards the forms of those who qualify to the Austrian government, who then forwards them to the Austrian Embassy in Iran. They, in turn, work on getting the official exit visas from the Iranian government. Those who qualify are given approximately one month to pack up what they can and move to Vienna.

Those who are Jewish are particularly lucky in that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee -- a Federation-funded partner agency -- steps in as caregivers in Vienna.

The three students, who asked that we not use their names or take pictures, as each still has family in Iran and are fearful for them, came to Vienna alone.

One of the women, a 24-year-old with long, dark hair and strikingly engaging brown eyes told us that her research professor at university stole her paper. When she confronted him, he laughed in her face and said that she had no recourse; not only was she a woman, but she was Jewish. He threatened that if she went public he would fail her in the three courses she had with him and she could not graduate. She has been accepted to both UC-Irvine and USC in Ph.D. programs in genetics and biochemistry/microbiology. She hopes to find a cure for cancer.

Can you imagine leaving everything you know -- your parents, siblings and friends, and then moving to another country? The truth of the matter is that these students, and so many more like them, may never see their parents again. But being free to live as Jews means so much more.

When I sat down with 2013 Campaign Chair Hope Silverman and Women's Philanthropy President Vivian Lieberman, my traveling companions, to discuss the situation, Hope said, "When you give money, this is what it's doing -- helping people get out of countries (where they are persecuted for being Jewish). These agencies are using dollars in a way we couldn't dream of."

For Vivian, meeting the young adults was a particularly moving experience. Her mother was born in Vienna and, at the age of 14, sent to relatives in the United States. Her grandparents did make it to the U.S. as well, coming with very few possessions and having to start completely over in a new country where they didn't speak the language. "They probably were brought over like how these kids (the Iranian students) were being brought over," she related.

As for her feelings about Jewish Vienna, she shared, "For me, it was really moving and important, (as it) gave me some idea of what my mother's life was like. It was good for me to learn about being Jewish here, to see there are Jewish people thriving."


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ODESSA — THE FIRST TWO DAYS

The Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission officially began on Monday afternoon with a walking tour of Odessa, including historic Jewish sites like the house of Jabotinsky and Chaim Nachman Bialik.

The group had dinner with community representatives. Women's Philanthropy President Vivian Lieberman, 2013 Campaign Chair Hope Silverman and I had the privilege of sitting with Idan, who works for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the professional shaliach in Kiev. He told us that he just accepted a job as the director for five countries, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Idan moved to Israel with his parents when he was a teenager; ironically he is back working for the Jewish people in a region that his parents so desperately tried to leave. He looked over at me and thanked me for allowing him to do what he does. In return, I thanked him for turning simple dollars into the programs and projects that save human lives.

On Tuesday we broke into small groups for what turned out to be an eye-opening experience. Hope and I were with Paulina, who is the case worker for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Chesed program. She works with 300 clients and is the supervisor for other case workers whose combined total clientele is 1,300 elderly, disabled and disadvantaged people who aren't helped by the Claims Conference.

A brief bit of background:There are 160,000 vulnerable Jews in the former Soviet Union; 14,000 of them in the Odessa Region. There aren't safety nets in place like we have in the U.S. (Social Security and business-based pensions). Retirees and the disabled receive what is called a pension on scale depending upon the type of work that they did. This money, typically just a few hundred dollars a month, must cover food, medicine, rent and heat. What it doesn't cover is the cost of loneliness.

Paulina brings a credit card visit loaded with 120 grivnas (the currency in Ukraine) with her on client visits, which is to last them three months. One dollar equals eight grivnas -- $14 per month for the extra food that a pension doesn't cover. We visited a supermarket today to go through the very painful exercise of buying food for Vladimir, a 63-year-old homebound man who suffers from cerebral palsy (most likely the result of the toxic fumes inhaled by his father in the mines he worked east of Siberia), chronic bronchitis, digestive disorders, poor hearing and problematic joints.

The money went fast! Our decisions were only influenced by the fact that the food we were purchasing was a bonus for Vladimir, as he was kind enough to invite us to his house to share his story. So the biscuits (cookies), black currant and orange juices, canned salmon, tea and hard cheese were treats.

Vladimir is one of the "lucky" ones -- h e gets a much higher pension of $154 a month because he is disabled. He is lucky? He lives with his parents in a two-room apartment on the third floor of a walk-up Soviet-era apartment building. We walked into the building, the outside of which was overrun with weeds and stray cats. As we entered, I was struck by how hot it was. No air conditioning on a 90-degree day. Vladimir was sitting on his bed, and when we presented him with our gift of food, his face lit up. We also brought a box of chocolate for his parents, who were equally as gracious.

Vladimir doesn't get out. He wakes at 6:00 a.m., does 20 minutes of exercise and drags himself to the kitchen to eat breakfast. Then he returns to his room to read, watch TV and listen to music. He is a private man, so his father did most of the talking about their life and being Jewish. They knew all along -- they were constantly reminded by non-Jews. He was born in the Far East (east of Siberia, where winters have temperatures of 20-degrees below zero).

The heat in the room was stifling, but Vladimir was laughing as he showed us pictures. He looked so small sitting on t he gbed, his lower body atrophied from lack of use. The room was full of books, a tiny TV set with rabbie ears and the wheelchair he rarely uses.

When we asked his father what it meant to receive money from the Chesed, he thanked us. He said they used to get more but he knows the economy is bad.

I cannot think of a time when I was more frustrated. He understands? This family, who has virtually nothing, living in an apartment that was furnished and painted exactly as when it was build 30 years ago, who barely have enough to eat, was letting us off th e hook.

"I often say when I am doing my fundraising that no gift touches more lives," said Hope Silverman. "These are people who cannot say 'thank you' to you, who you don't see, who you don't meet. But being in this country, I am seeing the people we are helping, seeing where the money is going. There are 160,000 people like (Vladimir) -- we're the 911 of the Jewish people."

We went from seeing the firsthand effects of the JDC's Chesed program to visiting JAFI programs in Odessa that teach Hebrew and Jewish history and culture, and a relatively new JCC that rivals any one in the U.S., where the sounds of the choral group and dancing, yoga and exercise class, a preschool and a meals program. A location that hundreds of people use each day that many elderly say  have saved them from dying of loneliness.

Before we left, we were treated to a musical performance from Jewish students, ranging from five years to teens. It was as good as any performance that I have seen!

We traveled from despair to destiny, from emotionally draining to emotionally  uplifting on this intensely full day.

I didn't need reinforcement of why I work for the Jewish community. But I cannot say that I am sorry I got it.


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DAY 3 IN ODESSA

While we have been here since Sunday afternoon, it really was only two-and-a-half days on the program. What an emotional day today has been!

We started at a World ORT school, funded by your overseas allocations. ORT operates in 64 countries, employing 7,000 teachers. Their slogan is "Educating for Life," and for many students, these schools are life-savers. In th e former Soviet Union, there are 17 such schools where it costs $400 per child -- and there are 7,000 students currently studying curriculum set by the Israeli Ministry of Education. When the h ead of the school was asked how much each student had to pay to attend, he said:  "We charge only you," meaning 100 percent of the tuition cost is paid for by contributions like Federation's Annual Campaign and private donors.

We then headed to Odessa's Holocaust Memorial, the site where 19,000 Jews were rounded up by the Romanians and shot to death. As we were exiting the buses, the skies opening up and it started to rain, appropriately washing away the terrors and refreshing the ground, mixing with the tears that were falling.

After singing "Hatikvah" (The Hope), we went to a restaurant --  similar to Chuck E. Cheese and A Latte Fun, where many of us have brought our children and grandchildren to have lunch and play. But this was no ordinary lunch! The children who joined us were recipients of JDC Chesed funds -- out came the same credit cards as we saw yesterday. These were children at the most risk, in terms of economic crises. We met 11-year-old Micha, who lives with his mother and 21-year-old sister. They lost Micha's father last year and his mother is having trouble finding a job. The family lives in a two-roomj apartment where Micha sleeps on a bed from the Chesed (prior to that he slept on the floor). They survive on a meager $100-a-month pension from Micha's father and whatever money his sister brings home from her manicurist job, and $25 a month from the JDC.

Micha, who attends a Chabad-operated school, was sitting at a restaurant table eagerly eyeing the Coca-Cola that was waiting for us. It was the first time he was at the place, and it would likely be his last. It costs $40 to go for the couple of ours that he was there playing, dancing and singing, eating pizza, cakes, ice cream and sweets. You do the math...

We then met young adults who just three days prior returned from Taglit-Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel. Lives were transformed. Jewish should were sparked. Many of the students said how impressed they were with how the earth was transformed from sand and swamp to what it is today.

Lastly, we participated in a festive program and meal at JAFI summer camp in a tiny town called Chabanka, where teens participate in two-week Jewish camping experiences through Annual Campaign dollars. This wasn't the camp that I attended; there were no sports or swimming pools but, rather, it is centered on Jewish identity, holidays and culture. This year's theme is Israel, so we enjoyed "visiting" Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tel Aviv with the campers. How awesome that tomorrow we actually WILL land in Tel Aviv!

There are currently 6,000 youth attending summer or winter camps. The number sounds staggering, until you learn that not too long ago there were 12,000-18,000 participants; the downsizing a result of decreased Annual Campaigns.

It was a day of emotional highs and lows, of seeing children who are just beginning their Jewish journeys in one form or another.

From strength (educating Jewish students) to strength (knowing that although thousands died here there is a thriving Jewish communityi) to strength (children at-risk who are given sustenance -- physical and emotional) to strength (Ukranian teens experiencing our Jewish homeland and bringing those experiences home) to strength (teens spending time with other Jewish teens in a Jewish setting).

This is the Jewish Federation system at its finest.


ISRAEL — DAYS ONE & TWO

Today, Women's Philanthropy President Vivian Lieberman takes over "blog duty" as she, 2013 Campaign Chair Hope Silverman and Federation Director of Campaign Management & Administration Rachel Berg begin their days in Israel.

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The day began with our landing in Israel, which is always the greatest feeling for me. We went ot the Hadassah Neurim  Youth Village, a JAFI-funded program for children at-risk. This "boarding school" gives students who otherwise would fall throught he cracks an education before going into the Army. We then had lunch; I was so happy to eat Israeli food! We continued to our next site visit, to the home of an Israeli Arab, one of the coordinators of the JDC-funded kindergarten -- Echad -- that targets young children and their parents. A mothers' program that helps them relate better to their offspring and a fathers' program, to get them more involved as well, has recently started. We heard from a parent who is thankful for the program.From there, we spent some time with Taglit-Birthright Israel participants, who each told a wonderful story.

The experiences had a great impact on me, resulting in a wonderful conversation with Gail Norry, the national Women's Philanthropy President, about my 2013 Campaign gift. My feelings were so strong as we witnessed the programs that Federation supports that I increased my commitment to the next Lion of Judah recognition level.

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The fabulous day ended with the Birthright Mega Event in the Haifa port, set against Israeli Navy vessels. This gathering of all Birthright groups who happen to be in Israel at the same time blew me away. This year's celebration -- the 13th year -- had thousands of young adults from Canada, the U .S., Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and France, along with hundreds of IDF soldiers participating. Everyone enjoyed the fireworks, music and dancing. Having never been to Haifa it was, for me, the perfect end to a perfect day.

The highlight of Day Two was a visit to Mevasseret Zion, an Ethiopian Absorption Center, where 1,250 Ethiopians are helped to integrate into Israeli society. Here the new immigrants go through a formal conversion (In Ethiopia, Jews only know biblical law, not rabbinic law; the conversion process ensures their religious education and allows them to enter Israel on the Law of Return), learn Modern Hebrew and also learn about modern life in a Western country. In Ethiopia, electricity and running water didn't exist. Most people were illiterate in Amharic, their own language, They didin't have toothbrushes, stoves or escalators. For many of these immigrants, they walked only at night through the Sudan on their way to Jerusalem...like the parents of my lunch companion, David Mashasha.

David, a Sabra, is the second of six children. His parents walked throught he night with their then-one-year-old son, David's elder brother. They knew of this place called Jerusalem, and they knew that was where they had to be. David is now in medical school, deferring the Army until he finishes. He wants to specialize in emergency medicine, surgery or pain management.

Can you imagine what David's life would have been like if his parents didn't take the risk? Probably not!

Because of us and our Federation dollars, David will go on to change the world.

And with that, it is almost the start of Shabbat. As a group, we will travel to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom, from Jerusalem.


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FINAL MISSION BLOG

I am writing this from the comfort of my office in the Federation building in West Palm Beach.

The highlight of our last day in Israel was a visit to the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv for a private briefing with a Brigadier General on the Israeli defense situation, which included a video of joint Israel-American exercises. We also attended an intimate session at the King David Hotel with President Shimon Peres, who discussed the future of the State, the importance of human capital and why America will remain strong. A surprise visitor -- there for high-level meetings while awaiting the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her meeting in Egypt -- was Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States.

The day ended with a festive closing dinner before CCD mission participants departed for the airport and destinations across the U.S. and Canada.

What a whirlwind trip the last two weeks were for us all! We went from meeting people who could have been any of us had our grandparents or great-grandparents not left Europe before World War II to the land of Israel, where business is thriving and Judaism is a way of life.

The entire experience was as inspiring and rewarding as it was a constant reminder of what life would be like for some in our global Jewish community if not for the Federation system and our Annual Campaign. I am hooked; I work on behalf of the Jewish community -- but every once in a while, volunteers and professionals alike need a bit of a reminder about why we do this.

There is so much we can accomplish working together! The future holds endless possibilities. What will YOU do to help provide for those in need? We invite you get more involved in a Federation committee...donate your time and dollars. The power of the collective is so much greater than what any one person can do alone.

If you have questions, call me at 561-242-6612 or email. I would be happy to share my stories with you, and let you know how you can get involved in making a difference for so many in the Jewish world.


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