Since I last posted, I’ve started my new volunteer position — no trumpets sounded or anything like that, but on July 1, I woke up as the general campaign chair for the United Jewish Appeal of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
I’ve been writing this blog while serving in various volunteer capacities — as president of Women’s Philanthropy, as Major Gifts co-chair, and now as the UJA Campaign Chair.
Over the course of the next two years, I hope to share many stories with you about how we, together, make a difference in the lives of so many in so many places — here in Greater MetroWest, in Israel, and around the world. I’m excited to be here and to bring you all along with me on this journey.
One week into my new position, I embarked on one of the highlights of the campaign year, the Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. This trip is sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of all 155 federations across the continent. This would be my third CCD mission, having previously gone to Ethiopia, Poland, and Israel. This year’s mission was to Odessa, in Ukraine, and then on to Israel.
I have to admit that I was wary of the Odessa portion of the mission. Having been to Ukraine previously, I know that life there is difficult, although there is much that we do, through our gifts to the Annual Campaign, to sustain and create Jewish life. But it wasn’t easy travel and while I was inspired for a lifetime by my last visit 11 years ago, I thought I knew what I would be seeing.
I was wrong. What I saw in Odessa convinced me that, because of us, Jewish life on an ongoing basis is possible in places like Ukraine. I am also convinced that without our partners on the ground — the Jewish Agency for Israel (Jewish Agency), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), World ORT, and in Odessa, a very special place called the Tikva School and Children’s Homes, that life wouldn’t be nearly as secure and vibrant. And yet, we also saw that there is more work to do.
I will have many stories to share from this mission; the first one is what kind of community Greater MetroWest is, and why we also need to be part of the greater collective that is Jewish Federations of North America.
At the end of a very full day in Odessa, we went to summer camp. If you’ve been to summer camp, and especially if you attended a Jewish camp, you can probably recall the sheer fun of being with other kids, free from the classroom and having the best time with your best camp friends, doing Jewish instead of simply learning Jewish.
We walked into the camp, sponsored by the Jewish Agency and funded by our dollars, and all of the campers — high school age — were on the tennis courts, dancing up a storm to the latest Israeli pop music.
Despite the fact that it was 100 degrees and about 100 percent humidity, the teens’ enthusiasm was contagious, and we jumped right in. I was taking a breather after trying to figure out the steps to a particularly rousing line dance when Flo Lowe, a JDC staffer who was on the mission with us, came running up to me.
“Leslie, Leslie,” Flo said with great excitement. “You know the fund MetroWest has that provides money for plastic surgery for teenagers?” I did, indeed know about the fund established by The Harrison Trust. “Well, the latest girl you helped was standing right next to me! Her name is Julia — she’s a camper here!! I had no idea she was here!”
Let me back up and explain a little bit. The Harrison Trust has a fund to provide for reconstructive plastic surgery for Jewish teenagers in Israel. We have worked with The Harrison Trust to identify Jewish teens who need such life-changing assistance. The very first case where we were able to utilize the fund happened during my tenure as chair of the MetroWest Israel and Overseas Committee. Because of coordination between The Harrison Trust, MetroWest, and the JDC, three other teenagers have been treated since then, with Julia the most recent.
The reason that Flo knew Julia was that Flo had worked closely with us in getting Julia her treatment while she was in Israel. And now Julia was here, just one of 150 teenagers enjoying summer camp and enjoying being Jewish. Flo quickly gathered Maxine Murnick, Women’s Philanthropy president, and Robin Leitner, Women’s Philanthropy assistant director, who were both in Odessa with me, and brought us over to meet Julia.
Isn’t she beautiful? You simply cannot see the scar that had previously marked half of Julia’s face. We felt like we were meeting a member of the family — it was an instant bond. The power of one community, with generous foundations like The Harrison Trust, strong ties to the JDC, and an office in Israel, not only changed Julia’s life, but in a way, may have saved it.
And because we are part of a larger continental system, a network of 155 federations, the Jewish Agency can sponsor summer camps for teens like Julia. For many, many of the kids who attend these camps across the Former Soviet Union, this is their first experience with the joy of being Jewish, their first Shabbat celebrations. Many of them go on to attend Birthright Israel trips and many eventually make aliyah to Israel.
As a powerful and proud federation, we were able to help Julia regain her life. As part of a national system, we are able to help Julia have a Jewish life. There are many more kids who would love to go to the Jewish Agency camps, but more funding is needed. The cost of sending one child to one of these life-altering camps is around $700.
That’s about what my parents paid to send me to Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, New Hampshire in 1971. It was also a life-altering experience, the first place I had seen that many Jewish kids in one place, ever. My parents were able to pay to send their three children to a Jewish summer camp. I will always be grateful to them for doing this, because it helped make me more Jewish, more Zionist, more me. This is what our dollars are doing for Julia and her friends.
During the course of the 2013 Annual Campaign I will ask you, or someone else will ask you, to make a gift to the campaign, or to increase your gift. We will not be asking for ourselves. We will be asking so that there are more beautiful Jewish children in this picture:
Unless you read Russian, you cannot understand what Julia’s camp t-shirt says, but I can tell you that it reads, “Dreams come true.” Indeed they do.
Here’s to Julia, here’s to Greater MetroWest, here’s to Jewish Federations of North America and our overseas partners at work in Odessa: JDC, the Jewish Agency, Tikva School and Children’s Homes, and World ORT — together, we ARE greater!