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Jerusalem Netletter: After Hanukkah thoughts

By Barbara Sofer

Dear Hadassah Friends,

We have all scraped off the wax and put away our Hanukkah menorot, but we can still take to heart the message of the holiday. You get a miracle from heaven only after you make every effort on earth. Only after our Maccabbee forefathers and foremothers fought for our values did they receive the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days.

How moving it was to see the Hanukkah lights on top of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower, just as the final floors were built and the roof was poured!

Not long ago, I accompanied National President Nancy Falchuk and Tower architect Arthur Spector on a site visit. We went upstairs in a cage-like construction elevator and Spector spoke of his architectural challenge: to make the architecture strong enough to bring people together in their troubled time of hospitalization." What a beautiful thought. And then, just this week I was in the long corridor that will become the glorious main entrance to the Tower with architect Spector and famous glass artist Dale Chihuly. Spector told Chihuly. "The light in Jerusalem is stronger than any place else in the world." He spoke of the extra measures that must be taken to filter the light that will come through the glass in the Tower. Our Jewish tradition has always spoken about the "light of Jerusalem" and here was a brilliant architect explaining to the world's premier glass artist about the practical aspects of working with "Jerusalem light!"

The glass for the Tower comes from the Israeli glass factory started by the late Bill Davidson, whose generous donation launched the Tower campaign. And glass, as Chihuly, pointed out, was invented in the ancient Middle East. Chihuly spent a year on kibbutz when he was a young adult and confirmed that it had been the turning point in his life. (Look at the photos on facebook) He was delighted to visit our Chagall Window, (and I was delighted to be representing Hadassah there with him!)

Hanukkah was dominated, as you know, by the tragedy of the fire in the Carmel Forest. As soon as the scope of the disaster became clear, Hadassah National President Nancy Falchuk phoned the three youth villages with which Hadassah is associated and asked them to take in fire refugees. At Hadassah-Neurim near Netanya, Meir Shfeya, near Zichron Yaakov and Ramat Hadassah-Szold in Tivon, beds and supplies were readied for families who had to flee their homes.

You will surely recall that our youth villages became refuges for families who had to leave their homes because of missile fire in the Second Lebanon War.

I'd like to use this opportunity to provide an update on those youth villages, which continue to serve as in inspiration.

Come with me first to Meir Shfeya, near the Rothschild town of Zichron Yaakov. Picture a charming hillside village with red-roofed houses, a swimming pool and sports center named for past National President Debbie Kaplan and a music center named for past president Bonnie Lipton. About a third of the students are from Ethiopian families, a third from the former Soviet Union, and a third from troubled sabra homes. But today we're going to meet some additional children.

Meet Aziz. Aziz (name changed) is officially a refugee from Eritrea, a war-torn country near Ethiopia, but he spent much of his life in a refugee camp in Sudan where his family fled. His dream was to move to England, a place he'd only heard about. Aziz began the journey with his mother and six siblings, but his mother was arrested. She urged him to keep running. England was far away, but the word on the dusty street where refugees gathered was that he might find sanctuary in the only country prohibited by the Sudanese. This place was called "the little Satan" but refugees insisted it was actually "a good and kind place."


The plan was that he would get a job in Israel and send money back to his mother. She gave him their only cash to pay an illegal smuggler at the Egyptian-Israel border. In the desert, he managed to survive jackals, real animals and those on two legs: slave-traders. At the border, he ducked the shooting of the Egyptians. Bedouins smuggled him across the border. In Israel ,he was arrested. He told the Israeli police that he was a political refugee and that he wanted to work here. Aziz became part of a controversy on the front pages of Israeli newspapers: what to do with the flood of illegal migrants? A thousand migrants a month cross from Egypt into Israel. 70 percent are from Eritrea, 20 percent from Sudan and others from Ivory Coast, Chad, China, Turkey or the Ukraine. Israel is building a better barrier and establishing a detention center.

What does all of this have to do with Hadassah? When Aziz was held by the police, an Israeli physician examined him and determined that Aziz wasn't 18, as he was claiming. He was 16 at most. According to the law in Israel, he had to go to school. Who would take him while his future was decided?

Back on her very first visit to pre-state Israel in 1909, Henrietta Szold visited the Meir Shfeya Youth Village near Zichron Yaakov. Orphans from the Kishinev pogroms were cared for there. Later Jerusalem orphans from the Diskin Orphanage on the Street of the Prophets were moved there by Hadassah in 1923, after Junior Hadassah took over, building a youth village with educational services in the fullest sense. Over the decades, children who had escaped from pre-war Nazi Europe, young Holocaust survivors, olim from Rumania, Morocco, Iraq, Russia, Argentina, Cuba, Ethiopia as well as sabras from dysfunctional homes rebuilt their lives in Meir Shfeya.

But Aziz wasn't Jewish, and he didn't want to go to school.

"Aziz was very hostile at first,|" said Meir Shfeya psychologist Maayan Borstein. "He was always getting in fights." Despite his hostility, the experienced staff at Shfeya determined that Aziz was bright and capable. As he calmed down in the village and began acquiring Hebrew, he admitted that he'd once had dreams of studying. He'd wanted to be a doctor when he grew up.

"Like many good kids who want to help their families, he had given up his own dreams to help them survive," said Borstein. The Shfeya staff members find odd jobs for Aziz to do, on weekends, vacations, and after school so that he has funds to send home.

Sitting on the plush Shfeya grass, I met Aziz, and several of the other eight illegal migrants from Eritrea , Another boy was from the Ivory Coast. Another, Itbarak, 16, from an Ethiopian background loves music, and who "heard it was a good place to get help with your schoolwork and have get more extracurricular activities that were too expensive for his family." He's a talented drummer. Assad, 13, is a Beduin boy from the Negev, who takes advantage of the learning center. Georgie, 16, and her sister came with their mom from Rumania, and is looking forward to serving in the IDF.

What will be the future of the illegal migrants among them? That's a decision that will be made by the Israeli government, coming to grips with a new challenge. But in the meantime, they're teens in Israel who had no place to live, no place to dream. Until they came to Meir Shfeya. We'll keep you posted.

Now let's travel to the sunny coast of Israel to Netanya, where the Mediterranean laps up on the beach. Here is another sanctuary called Hadassah-Neurim. When the earlier youth village of Ben Shemen had to be evacuated in the War of Independence, the children were moved at night to the British army barracks here. You've met children at Hadassah-Neurim before, some of them sports stars working out on the state-of-art track named for former National President Marlene Post. But today, please meet Lianna, 16. Lianna grew up in a Jewish family in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul. She loves soccer. She was always playing soccer with the Moslem boys on her street. Lianna's mom, a single-parent, decided that the climate in Turkey was no longer healthy for her children. A cosmetician, she's living in Ashdod at the Absorption Center there. Money , as you can imagine, is tight. Like many immigrants before her, Lianna came to live in Hadassah-Neurim. She kept asking her counselors when she could play soccer. In addition to an excellent track and field team, talented village teens play with the Netanya's professional soccer team. But they're all boys. Lianna challenged the best boy players to a one-on-one soccer match and beat them all. No one had ever seen a girl who could play soccer like Lianna.

There's only one professional women's soccer team in Israel. It practices in Tel Aviv. So Manu Har-Sinai, the busy head of the dorm voluntered to drive her there. Who is Manu Har-Sinai?

He's a dedicated educator, one of eight children who grew up in Israel after his family moved here from North Africa. His sister's teen pregnancy sensitized him to the plight of children who come from families that can't cope, and he's devoting his life to helping kids. He's one of the incredible men and women who work in our villages.

Lianna's Mom doesn't have the means to support her daughter's interest in sports. Hadassah is making this happen. Think about it. Where else would you have the opportunity to help a Jewish girl from Turkey fulfill her dreams?

And last but not least, let's stop by Ramat Hadassah Szold, a village not far from Haifa in Tivon. They were also primed to take in evacuees from the fire.The staff just returned from a fieldtrip to Jerusalem. They were re-launching the vaunted Joy of Judaism Woman of Valor course we sponsor to raise the level of Jewish identification for the girls in the village. Only about 25 percent of their students are girls, and most of those are from single-parent families. Their mothers often think that Judaism can only be a man's responsibility, that they can't make kiddush or light the Hanukkah lights. To prime the staff for their own consciousness-raising in this area, they met with a Conservative woman Rabbi who challenged some of their thoughts about women in Judaism. So, when it came time to light the Hanukkah candles that evening at dinner in Jerusalem, one of the women teachers insisted on lighting and saying the brachot right along with the designated man. I was there, too, telling them about how our Henrietta Szold set our standard for women's activism. And here's some news: The nearby Ramat David Air Force base is so impressed by this village that Israel's pilots are now signing on to mentor our kids.

How is that for setting our goals high as the sky?

We have so much to be proud of as Hadassah members, carrying on the golden chain of Jewish women, from generation to generation. Helping children, empowering girls,building the future in so many ways For more information on Youth Aliyah, contact Youth Aliyah Chair Barbara Spack.

From Jerusalem, where the much-waited for rain began falling this week,

Northern Californians- see you all in February in Asilomar! Have you all registered?



Barbara Sofer, Jerusalem
Israel Director of Public Relations
Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America
www.barbarasofer.com and be my friend on facebook

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