Sunday, May 20, 2012

Guest Post: Jerusalem: Compass of the Diaspora Jew

Following is a guest blog post by Avital Chizhik 

Jerusalem: Compass of the Diaspora Jew

We’re standing in a hall in downtown Manhattan, overlooking a dusky Liberty Harbor.

The girl standing next to me points to the river view: “Doesn’t it almost look like Jerusalem? That terrace over there and that tree? The way the sun is setting?”
I gaze for a minute at the view. We stand overlooking a dark Hudson River, a boat passing by, the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

No, it doesn’t look like Jerusalem in the least. Not here. This is most certainly New York. I muster a smile, trying to think of an agreeable response until I finally sigh and admit, “No, it doesn’t look like Jerusalem. Not at all.”

She’s not happy with my answer.  She’s fresh off a spring break Birthright trip and probably still seeking Jerusalem. But look, the tree, and the sunset? Why, you don’t see it? Something about those shadows.

I’ve learned to nod politely in these moments; I understand her. It’s like stepping off a plane in JFK and still smelling Jerusalem, hearing a loudspeaker and thinking for a second that it’s the call of the muezzin.

Somehow we always know how to seek Jerusalem, wherever we are: whether it’s by Babylon’s rivers or the Hudson.  It’s some kind of inner compass which directs us there – not just for times of prayer, but in everything, on our living room walls and our silk paintings, in our wedding invitation calligraphy, our whispered consolations to mourners.

Even in the Soviet Union. My mother tells me about her childhood in the far north of Russia, the wait for exit visas in the ’70s. She tells me of dark winter nights, secret copies of Exodus, gatherings with fellow Traitors of the State and political activists. Jerusalem: it was the magical formula whispered between activists. “Soon, we’ll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café,” Mark Morozov, one of the activists, said upon farewell, as my mother’s family gathered to emigrate. A Jerusalem café – what does a Moscow Jew know about a café in the Middle East?

The idea of Jerusalem is ingrained in the subconscious of the Diaspora Jew, arguably a different image than the one preserved by the Israeli. A place, yes, but also a reality, an ideal to constantly face and strive towards. It’s become the perfect metaphor for all of Israel, and even for Jewish identity itself: a complicated place of winding streets, hills and valleys, divided, beautiful and tense. A fusion of east and west, ancient and modern, “always of two.”  As Yehuda Amichai notes in his poetry: it’s at once an object of fantasy and also entirely mundane.

And often, it’s the ordinary which penetrates the Diaspora Jew. It’s not just praying by the Western Wall or wandering the Old City, but it’s also about that bus ride you take and the kind old man who blesses you and hands you a bag of fresh lychees. Is it naive, perhaps, that I melt a little, every time I walk by children playing in the city’s streets? That I can spend months in that place, and still shake my head in disbelief over the miracles that took place there? Is it possible, to yearn for the place in which one already stands?

Some Israelis laugh when they watch us grow misty-eyed: “You’re impassioned with this place, aren’t you?” They tolerate it, wonder at our shameless romanticism, smile at our naiveté.

But I’ve come to be proud of my admitted naiveté. It’s that same idealism of standing by the Hudson and seeing Jerusalem somewhere in the distance, the same fervor of the early pioneers and their ruthless conviction, the same bright-eyed conversation held somewhere by the Arctic Circle and planning café outings.

Soon, we’ll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café. That activist, who had promised to meet my family in Jerusalem, died in a Soviet prison seven years afterwards; my mother’s family settled in Brooklyn. But the stories of those wintry nights, of waiting for an exit visa, remain strong – we’re still seeking, straining to see Jerusalem from afar.

This Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim), I’m reaffirming my conviction to return, if for no other reason than to sit in that Jerusalem café, for the sake of those who couldn’t.

Avital Chizhik is a recent graduate of Stern College for Women and the outgoing president of the Yeshiva University Israel Club.  She hopes to make the big move to Israel before next Jerusalem Day. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Guest Blog: Israel at 64 - Innovation in Caring

By Sarah Herskowitz

As we ready ourselves for Israel's upcoming birthday celebration and reflect on the last 64 years, we can't help but swell with pride at our country's many accomplishments.

In what seems like no time at all, the State of Israel has become a world leader in scientific research and technological development in fields ranging from medicine to green technology.  Over the last several decades, there has been a constant stream of citations and awards recognizing the contributions of our country's academics, leaders and institutions. In addition, Israel is known as an international hub for innovation and a trailblazer in virtually every discipline – from economics to political science to biotechnology.

These achievements speak to a wider Israeli penchant for diagnosing flaws within a given paradigm or situation and developing practical, effective solutions. In short, Israel succeeds because its population is uniquely capable of filling gaps, fixing what's broken and righting wrongs.

However, while the accolades achieved by Israel's elite are impressive, they are by no means the best measurement of the country's growth.  As I see it, true progress is defined by a society's willingness to channel the same innovation and creativity developed for its business and government sectors into the treatment and care of its most vulnerable citizens.
In this regard, Israel truly has a great deal to celebrate.

For the last twenty years, I have worked for ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. When I first began, our work was limited to ensuring that the children in our care were simply kept healthy and happy. But as times went on, our projects expanded and we began utilizing the most cutting-edge techniques and therapies available, allowing us to move light years beyond our initial mandate. 

The secret formula that helped our organization grow, and improved care for the underprivileged and disabled across Israel over the last two decades, is yet another homegrown formula from the 'start-up nation' – I like to call it 'innovation in caring'. 

For example, while the impact made by donors and volunteers is usually measured in dollars and cents, Israeli donors and volunteers have simply refused to allow themselves to be limited by these standards.

Instead of clocking in and out, volunteers are consistently seeking new ways to give of themselves and maximize each and every visit. This trend has led to numerous advances for and a host of new services provided by non-profit organizations across the country.

In the same vein, donors are no longer content just writing checks, and have taken an active role in helping their chosen organizations make the most of the resources available and improving the services provided.

This involvement speaks to a deeper relationship between individual and organization than simply giving of one's time or funds. It emphasizes the fact that our donors and volunteers don't simply pick a charity out of a hat, but instead go through an active process of choosing a cause with which they personally identify. This relationship is taken a step further when these individuals bring their professional expertise to the fore to benefit the non-profit projects.

Though the rise of a vibrant technology sector and a flurry of Nobel prizes receive the bulk of the headlines, Israel's development is more capably explained in the growth of our charitable organizations and the integration of our neediest populations.

And so, here's to the next batch of Israeli academics, leaders and entrepreneurs who will put us on the map with their revolutionary new methods of filling the gaps, fixing what's broken and righting the wrongs.  But, most importantly, here's to the next 64 spectacular years of Israeli innovation in caring.

Sarah Herskowitz is the director of international relations for ALEH (, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.  ALEH provides over 650 children from around Israel with high-level medical and rehabilitative care in an effort to help them reach their greatest potentials.