Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Your Mark...

The pace has really accellerated this past week or so. It usually does, in August, but this year, the summer was busier than usual. Here's a recap:
  • June began with our air conditioner needing replacement (a necessity in the Washington DC area!).
  • My mother died shortly thereafter, after a long illness. I spent a week with my father and brothers.
  • We received notice of grant funding for Madrichim (teen aide) training, to be held on August 30th.
  • A colleague contracted for a major curriculum rewrite - we worked together over 25 hours between the end of June and the end of July.
  • Our kitchen, dining room and hallway were painted and "re-staged."
  • I met with another client to plan some family programs with her.
  • We went to Israel.
  • I wrote lessons and teacher guides for the Madrichim Training - and submitted two of them to a publisher who'd asked me to develop some materials for madrichim training.
  • We staffed the Training session and distributed teaching materials to the facilitators.
  • Five directors spoke to me about doing training workshops - three for staff orientations, and two for training during the school year.
  • I met with another colleague, who's piloting an innovative idea for family education.
  • I had eye surgery (successfully!)
  • We received notice of funding for another large program (Lev B'Lev - "Heart to Heart") in Northern Virginia that I'll be facilitating again this year, in January.
  • Materials for that program were compiled, duplicated and will be distributed at a regional directors' meeting next week.
  • And there's been the usual complement of volunteer work: meetings (committee and board), knitting, Mitzvah Heroes work.

Whew! I knew the summer was busy as the weeks were passing - but, wow! I really did get a lot more accomplished than I thought. My "to-do" lists have seemed unending - I hadn't really focused on the "Done" part of the list until now.

That's the recap. Tomorrow begins the Hebrew month of Elul - which is a preparation month in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement): a month in which we focus on how the past year has gone and what we look forward to in the year ahead.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Update: The Chesed Center

Just a note to update my previous entry on Mercaz Chesed.

Monday, in looking at the photos that Avichai shared with us, Steve pointed out that the lettering on the side of the van in one of the pictures says, "Afikim b'Negev."

Afikim b'Negev is an organization composed of a number of families who moved to the S'derot area some time before the bombing from Gaza began. Their purpose was to work to improve the lives of many living in S'derot.

Over time, Afikim B'Negev has made significant contributions: among them, the outdoor play area I referenced earlier; providing portable block parties for kids in S'derot ("the playground comes to them instead of them going to the playground"); converting underground shelters into attractive, functional spaces that can be used for after-school tutoring and programs -- you get the idea.

Afikim B'Negev is also one of the Mitzvah Hero organizations supported by the Mitzvah Heroes Fund. For information how to support this organization, and other Mitzvah heroes I've discussed (Meled, Crossroads, Atzum, the Rabbanit Kapach), here's the link to our donation page.


Enjoy the last couple of weeks of summer - I'm scrambling to prepare for back-to-school sessions!

I can't believe it's the middle of August and I haven't done my annual back-to-school (delusional) shopping. I wonder if that means I've finally outgrown that compulsion???

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Chesed Center

One of the most amazing hours we spent in Israel was the hour we spent with Avichai Amusi.
Nine years ago Avichai initiated the Mercaz Chesed center in S’derot that he runs full time as a volunteer.

The Chesed Center, under Avichai’s leadership, manages to accomplish the following:
  • reclaim food that would otherwise be unused (produce grown in the area by local kibbutzim and moshavim, (farms) that’s not “pretty” enough to be purchased)

  • package the reclaimed food into bags to be distributed to hungry people in S’derot and the surrounding area

  • distribute the food bags to approximately 600 families a week

  • prepare and feed lunch to approximately 150 additional people a day

  • maintain a clothing center where people can buy a “gently used” or brand-new (donated) article of clothing – for a few shekels

  • run a young parenting room, filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a wide assortment of toys and games, and other baby/toddler equipment – all available for parents to borrow and then return when they are done.

  • distribute formula and diapers (when they have them to give away) to families that need them

  • provide an opportunity for parent education and for parents to meet and talk with others.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? That one organization can manage to accomplish so much – efficiently.

Even more amazing is that all the work is done by volunteers. Avichai volunteers* his time and his energy. Volunteers pack the food bags. Other volunteers help cook and clean up after meals. People donate clothing (new and “gently used). More people have donated supplies for the parenting room.

All donated.
All used to fill critical needs.
Without spending money on overhead.
Just doing.

Look closely at the picture on the left. The tables are cleaned and ready to go for the next meal.

Notice the flowers on the table? I don't know about you, but we don't usually have flowers on our table unless we have a guest - or it's a holiday.

Flowers on a table when hungry people are being feed. To me that speaks to several things: hiddur mitzvah/"making beatiful" the performance of a mitzvah; hachnasat orchim/welcoming guests; and -- perhaps most important -- kavod/respect.

I saw the same look in Avichai’s eyes as I saw in the Rabbanit Kapach’s eyes: the awareness that the work they are engaged in is sacred work. That it must be done. And that, somehow, people will be generous in donating their time, energy, money and stuff in order to get the job done.

Truly Mitzvah heroes.

A special thanks to Karyn London, of Atzum, who was willing to edit this piece before I published it. Todah rabbah, Karyn!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Totally Random, Disconnected Musings About Israel

Israeli drivers drive like bats (you know, "bats out of.....") BUT we didn't see a single red-light runner.

Traffic lights in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are timed so that you can only get half-way across the street at a time. Fortunately, there's a median in the middle where you can wait until the light indicates it's safe to cross the second half of the steet.

No right turn on red meant we didn't have to play dodge 'em with cars wanting to turn right while we were crossing the street.

Didn't see any "don't block the box" signs.... but also didn't see anyone blocking the box.

North of Tel Aviv, we began to see some green stuff growing; almost totally covering the brown soil. But still too much brown and not enough green for my psyche.

(Left) Jerusalem hills from the Old City, in August.

(Right) Wisconsin farmland, early summer

Next time, we'll make a conscious effort to see more green spaces - the Golan and the Galilee are supposed to be beautiful and green. Our son says there's nothing like a walk around the Kinnert after dark.

Neither of the Israeli hotels we stayed in had washclothes. Getting a towel wet to cool down our faces seemed like over-kill. Next time, we'll bring a few extra washclothes.

Speaking of hot faces, next time, we'll cut up some old t-shirts into wash-cloth sized pieces. I'll stash several in my purse. As we are out "enjoying" the heat, I'll have something to dry my face and neck with during our "pause that refreshes."

We'll do a better job of looking for brochures about the places we see. There was a lot of verbal information, but very little written info to jog the memory a couple of days later.

We'll continue to take cabs everywhere. How much fun not to have to drive!

Probably won't do a July or August visit - one cab driver said, "I don't understand you tourists. I'm glad you're here, it helps the economy. But why don't you come in October or November or December when it's really beautiful? January and February aren't so great. And I'd avoid March. But October and November - that's when you should come." I think we'll take him up on his advice.

If we go during the school year and class is in session, I'd like to sit in on a class at Meled, if that wouldn't be a violation of any kid's privacy. I love to watch experts at work - I get really revved up again and think all things are possible.

When we go again, I'll pack a bunch of good sci fi for Caryn Green's library at Crossroads. I'm thinking maybe some Heinlein and Assimov.

We'll have dinner at the Village Green again in Jerusalem and we'll hit Benedict's for shashuka again. Maybe Renee (pictured right, waving) will still be working there: that would be awesome!

We'll make a conscious effort to find a felafal stand and some schwarma - didn't get either this time, which was a mild disappointment balanced (for me) by my discovery of shashuka.

We really didn't meet any rude Israelis.... I kept waiting to see if we would. We weren't crazy about our tour guide - but he wasn't rude: just not the right guide for us.

Next time, perhaps we'll rent a guide and do a self-designed tours. But if we'd done that, we wouldn't have met Susan and Steve Grad.

Next time, we'll look for a non-stop flight from Ben Gurion to either Newark or Philadephia. The six hour-layover in Madrid was very frustrating.

I'm really glad we took our first trip together - that it was new for each of us: no preconceived notions or prior experiences to live up to.

Neal got his dream of swimming in the Mediterranean and was thrilled when he watched a ball game on TV and found he could understand enough of what was going on.

The El Al security desk in Madrid (going into Ben Gurion) was curious about our names: "Meyerson," he said, "Isn't that the name of someone famous? Are you related?" "Golda," we answered "was a Myerson before she became Meier." "No," he shook his head, "Someone other that Golda. Who was it?" We had no clue and only later remembered that Neal's grandfather Philip had received several thank you letters written shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel for his work in fundraising. Letters thanking him came from Chaim Weitzman, Albert Einstein, and Eddie Cantor. Maybe this young man was taking a course about that time and came across those letters? Who knows? In any event, Irv's making copies for us. Next time, maybe we'll take the letters with us.

I was surprised by how many words of Hebrew I was understanding by the end of the trip, compared to the beginning.

Next time....

Thursday, August 6, 2009

If I Could Have One Wish

It was a wonderful trip, in many ways, and a different kind of a trip than I suspect many people think of when they talk of "going to Israel."

Many people decide to try and see as much of the land of Israel as possible - from the Golan to the Eilat, from the Dead Sea to Haifa, and all spots in between.

The first decision that Neal and I made was that this might be our first trip to Israel, but it wasn't going to be our last. Therefore, we didn't have to try and fit everything in during an 8-day period of time.

Simultaneously, we decided that we were going to focus a significant amount of our time getting to know some of the Mitzvah heroes that The Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc. supports. It was important to me to begin to put some of the names and faces together - to begin to breath life into the websites I've researched and the emails we've exchanged in the 15 months that the MHF has been in existance.

We didn't expect our trip to necessarily be "fun" - because issues of hunger, PTSD, abuse, and destructively low self esteem aren't "fun." And we were right - much of our trip wasn't fun.

What was it?


And ultimately: Transformative.

Many of the individuals we met are in my thoughts when I wake up in the morning, and among the last people I think of at night.

The Rabbanit Bracha Kappach, who's been feeding hungry people for 45 years;

Karyn London from Atzum, and our host at the new JNF
"blue box"
in S'derot

Avichai who runs the most amazing volunteer organization at the Chesed Center, providing food, clothing and parenting resources for hundreds. [ADDENDUM (Aug 9): Here's a link to a more complete description of the work Avichai does.]

Arnie Draiman, tour guide extraordinaire, who does the vetting MHF needs in order to ensure the groups we support are using their funds wisely

Caryn Green, from Crossroads, who provides a haven for teens who are lost and have difficulty find a purpose or a goal to strive for

If I had six wishes, I'd have you meet all the Mitzvah do-ers Neal and I met. It's a rare privilege to have the opportunity to talk with people who consistently make a significant difference in the lives of others.

But, if I had only one wish - this is what I'd wish for every person I know who works with kids - as a teacher, program/school director, youth worker, lay leader involved in congregational education, think-tank person who writes about educations... any one and every one who has a stake in "our kids."

A chance to spend one hour, listening to and talking with Menachem Gottesman, founder and director of the Meled School. Menachem's school is a school of last resort for many kids - teens who have dropped out or been kicked out of other schools and sometimes kicked out of their homes as well. Menachem talks about the type of school he runs: "It's a cardiac care unit," he explains. First, he adds, they fix the kids' hearts .... and then, (and only then) they work on the academics.

An hour with Menachem reminds us that all kids are only kids. That all kids have potential. That it's worth spending the time and energy to "invest" in our future - our kids.

For every teacher, every director, every youth worker who's burned out and tired of trying to fit square pegs into the round holes of our schools, an hour with Menachem would have them seriously considering how to make the holes square instead of the pegs round.

An hour with Menachem, with someone who honestly, sincerely believes that kids are worth the effort....

An hour with Menachem, who's realistic about the challenges involved in caring about kids who don't seem to want anyone to care about them....

That's what I wish for all of us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

JNF's New "Big Blue Box"

Before we left S'derot with Karyn London, we decided to try and find the new indoor playground in S'derot. We asked someone for directions and were told "Look for the big blue box." Sure enough, we found it at the end of the street!

The inside of the building was just as welcoming as the entrance - and even more amazing!

There were areas for little kids to play "pretend" and to jump and roll around;

DDR stations; basket ball hoops and punching bags; a half-length soccer field with goals;

a climbing wall; a fuse-ball (!) table; and even a separate space for teens to have dances!

For so many of the kids (who are struggling with PTSD), perhaps the most important space was this one:

a place where parents can hang out comfortably, yet be in clear view of their children!

The facility has a computer room, an arts and crafts room, party rooms (one with "boy" decor and one with "girl" decor), and a comfortable area to have snacks.

As you can see, the colors are bright and cheerful; the facility is well lit; and kids can do the running and jumping and bouncing that kids need to do.

What you don't see is how the building has been reinforced. Not only has extra reinforcement been added to the structure itself, but each individual room within the "big blue box" has been reinforced as if it were a stand-alone bomb shelter. It's that extra that makes the kids -- and their families -- feel secure here.

I used to think JNF's job was growing trees. I guess they're in the business of "growing kids," too.

For more information about the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, click here.