Almost every day since I started as chair of the UJA General Campaign, I am reminded of why I love what I am doing, and why I am so inspired by the work we do. This week was just one more example.
On Tuesday, I spoke at a Women’s Philanthropy event for the Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren County. The Women’s Philanthropy there supports Amutat Havaya of Merchavim, a center for the elderly (mostly women), who have lived their lives on the moshavim (agricultural collectives) that make up much of the Merchavim Regional Council.
As many of you know, Merchavim/Ofakim comprise one of our Partnership2Gether regions; it is a place I have visited many times and that is now, thanks to the Legow Family Israel Program Center and especially the efforts of the Peoplehood Project, a familiar and welcoming place to many, many teens and adults here in Greater MetroWest.
Because of our long-standing connection to Merchavim, I was asked to make a presentation about Amutat Havaya and tell a personal story about one of the participants. Amutat Havaya is a non-profit, volunteer-run center where seniors come for breakfast, classes, and companionship. They work together to make handcrafts — blankets, challah covers, hand-knit sweaters — to support the center.
I knew from my own experience that most of the women at the center are originally from North African Jewish communities in Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. What hadn’t really occurred to me, until I read the stories I received this week, was that these women and their husbands were truly pioneers who helped turn the Negev from desert to productive farmland.
My picture of the halutzim (pioneers) has always centered on the young men and women who left pogroms in Eastern Europe to drain swamps and start kibbutzim, establishing a picture of Jews as a strong, self-determining people. That is a truth, but only part of the picture.
What I was reminded of in these stories is how, immediately after the State of Israel was founded, Israel had to take in tens of thousands of refugees from North African Jewish communities where Jews were being persecuted and forced out. These immigrants were deposited around the periphery of the young state, and especially in the Negev.
I read the stories of three women, Phoebe, Batya, and Dalya. They came to the Negev from difficult circumstances in Morocco, Iran, and Egypt as young women or children and landed, literally in the middle of the night in some cases, in the Merchavim region. They lived in tents, with no running water or electricity. Eventually they all had small homes, worked the land beside their husbands, raised families, and are all now retired.
After these long, difficult, life journeys, Amutat Havaya provides a place of respite, a place of warmth and connection. I could easily picture tables of women sitting together knitting, sewing, talking, and looking out for each other.
And I realized that this is a picture I have seen over and over in the Jewish world. I have visited senior centers in Cherkassy, Havana, Budapest, Prague, Odessa, and across Israel. They all provide meals, group exercise, craftwork, companionship, and most of all, warmth and dignity. They are sponsored by the JDC, Jewish Agency, and individual communities which all share the same value — “honor thy father and mother.”
Lining the shelves of my office are dolls made at a senior center in Havana, a tzedakah box knitted by an Ethiopian woman in Israel, pottery from the Beit Grand JCC in Odessa, and many more tchotchkes, all made more meaningful because they are not tourist souvenirs but a connection to an elder of the Jewish community with a story to tell and a life to cherish.
I also realized that I have a very special senior center, close to me in geography and close to my heart, which has many things in common with the senior centers I’ve visited around the Jewish world, but with one difference. I am talking about my friends at the Margulies Senior Center at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange. They also meet for exercise of the mind and the body; they have lunch, talk, knit, play cards, and look out for each other.
But the Margulies seniors do one more thing, one extraordinary thing. They are part of the UJA Annual Campaign, and as part of the campaign, their dollars help support the senior centers I’ve mentioned and the countless others our dollars make possible.
I can’t wait to see my Margulies Senior Center friends on Super Sunday, December 2, and I can’t wait to see you there also!
Wishing you a wonderful week ahead,