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On the Ground in Israel, a blog by Amir Shachan On the Ground in Israel

Roi Peles

Looking at the accumulating photos of the fallen soldiers is perhaps the most difficult moment for me in this "Gaza War" (yes, I believe we are ready to call it such). Looking at these smiling, young vibrant faces and knowing that they are gone is heartbreaking.

So every once in a while in the past few weeks, when I feel too loaded, as an act of pure escapism, I go to the Tel Aviv beach. This spot is an island of sanity in the sea of chaos around us and in spite of the occasional sirens, life goes on there. Slower, sadder, but almost normal. It brings perspective back.

Yesterday was a bad day in Gaza — 10 new faces and names were added. So this morning I had to go to my Tel Aviv respite earlier than ever, to have double strong coffee in my beach cafe and to run extra kilometers on the promenade.

Halfway into my run I saw some people standing near what looks like an amateurish memorial monument. There on the beach, in the island of sanity where the blue sky is kissing the blue water, there was a monument for one of the fallen soldiers, Lieutenant Roi Peles (z’l). So I had to cease my "run-away running" and stop to pay respect. Almost all the early morning joggers and bikers did the same.

Then the strangest thing happened: I pulled out my cellphone to take a photo of this surreal scene. "Perhaps I will use it in one of my blogs," I told myself, "when I am able to overcome my writing block." But I couldn't take the photo.

Technically, but so symbolically, my device was frozen and whatever I tried to unfreeze it didn't work. Yes, I know, it is an iPhone 4 and everyone say it’s time to move to 5, but nothing like that ever happened to me before. The phone refused to cooperate.

So I didn't have any choice, I put it back and continued the run. But I couldn't escape the scene. The young smiling face of Roi Peles, in the background of the Tel Aviv beach, haunted me all the way back to my cafe. I sat there for half an hour trying to operate my phone till suddenly, without any explanation, it came back to life. At that moment I knew what to do. I left my soda on the table and ran back all the way to Roi's monument. I took some photos and ran back. I felt good physically and emotionally.

I am writing this post now on my miraculously cooperative phone, at the Banana Beach Cafe in Tel Aviv. It is in memory of Lieutenant Roi Peles (z’l), and all the young, smiling soldiers who fell in the battle to bring some normality and sanity to Israel. Yehi Zichram Baruch.

Drishat Shalom,


Posted by: admin (July 29, 2014 at 3:20 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink


I am going home tomorrow and I am ashamed. I am going to see my friends and family in Israel and yet I am sad. I am going to visit our groups and partners and I am upset. I am going to travel with Greater MetroWest leadership and I am so angry. “How can it be?” I always try to remain optimistic and insist on seeing the glass half full, even in times of crisis. So Ma Nishtana (what’s different)?

Everything. The basic equation that kept our moral justification to fight for this country and love it so much was shaken. All of a sudden, in the eyes of many, we, Israeli Jews, are not just victims of brutal, fanatic Arab terror but are vicious terrorists ourselves.

Slowly but surely, in both the virtual and real-life city squares, one finds growing Israeli Jewish incitement, provocation, racist and hate-filled calls similar to the traditional Arab ones that we’ve condemned for years. So yes, it makes me sick, horrified, ashamed, angry, and frustrated. Sorry.

Believe me, we can deal with the threat of rockets from Gaza. As I write this post, hundreds of them are being launched on my immediate family, friends, and colleagues. My son, who is in the Army reserves, was just called up. Yet, we are not panicked. We have experienced this situation time and time again. One way or the other the IDF and the community resilience will prevail.

What makes me much more distressed is the internal threat: the fact that a few of my fellow Israeli Jews have become cruel terrorists, some of my fellow Israeli Arabs are taking advantage of the explosive situation and, in few days of vandalism and violence, have ruined years of joint efforts for co-existence and a civilized shared society.

So now that I vented a bit let me share another personal thought: since I was a teenager and throughout the years, I was always volunteered to be the official reader of Yizkor (remember). Not the prayer from shul during Jewish holidays but the special secular prayer that is traditionally recited during Yom Hazikaron ceremonies (Israeli memorials for fallen soldiers and terror victims).

For many Israelis this is perhaps the most meaningful prayer, particularly because it is not a religious one. There is no God in it and it doesn’t come from our ancient Jewish sources. It is a reflection of our values as Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) and our heritage and sacrifice in building the renewed modern state of Israel. It was written by one of our Zionist founding fathers, Berl Katzenelson, and was later fine tuned.

Yizkor is the uniting vehicle of all segments of our complex society. In one such Israeli holy day, Yom Hazikaron, all of us are one. Here is the part that touches me most every time I read it. It is grieving the tragic loss of young lives, whether soldiers or victims of terror.

“May the people of Israel remember their sons and daughters that were murdered by terrorists in Israel and around the world. May the people of Israel cherish them in their memory; let them mourn the splendor of youth, the altruism of valor, the dedication of will and the devotion of sacrifice, which came to an end in the battlefield.”

During the last decade I’ve had the honor of reading Yizkor every Yom Hazikaron as part of the official ceremony at the military cemetery in Modi’in, my home town. Last week at this very cemetery, Am Yisrael buried our three boys, Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad and with them, the splendor of youth, the altruism of valor, and the dedication of will.

We are obliged by our Jewish democratic values to mourn, remember, find, and punish their murderers. The terrorists who took revenge and murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir betrayed their Jewish and Zionist values. They are worse than our worst enemies because by their shocking, horrifying act they split the nation and questioned the very reasoning of our youngsters to risk their lives for the survival and flourishing of our Jewish state. The fact that our law enforcement and justice authorities found and will punish them is not a comfort for me. The moral damage was done and it is tremendously distressing.

In the midst of all this darkness of terror, deaths, revenge, and violence there are a few rays of light. One of them is coming from the bereaved Frankel family. They are saying loud and clear that there is no difference between the murders and the blood of the Jewish and Arab boys. I salute them and all the other voices of sanity. We need them badly right now.

In this spirit I would like to offer an inclusive version of the above portion of our sacred Yizkor. Perhaps the sharing of our holy text will help draw the line between innocent victims and their killers, rather than between Arabs and Jews. Perhaps it will help us all fight terrorism in a more determined way. Perhaps if we recite it together in memory of Eyal, Naftali, Mohammed, and Gilad, we can deliver a stronger message of common sense.

“May all peoples remember their sons and daughters that were murdered by terrorists in Israel and around the world. May all peoples cherish them in their memory; let them mourn the splendor of youth, the altruism of valor, the dedication of will and the devotion of sacrifice, which came to such a heartbreaking end.”

Needed more than ever:

Drishat Shalom,



Posted by: admin (July 08, 2014 at 12:52 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Cozy Corner

Here are two statements about the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ:

  1. Our community is nationally renowned for its tradition of developing long-term, personal, intimate, and warm relationships with Israel and Israelis.
  2. Our community is the only one among Diaspora communities to maintain 7 geographical partnerships in Israel and 10 Israeli shlichim (emissaries) in New Jersey.

Which one of these statements is the cause and which is the effect? It's like the chicken and the egg: no one knows what came first but it actually doesn't matter. The bottom line is that there is a unique cozy corner in our collective heart for these long-lasting living bridges.

Last week brought with it yet another symbolic demonstration of the uniqueness of our Federation. The “Israel Center Gathering,” with more than 120 community leaders and friends, was opened with the recitation of a prayer for the safety and rapid release of the three abducted Israeli teens, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach. The prayer was followed by our six rishonim (young emissaries), leading all of us in the singing of Hatikvah. The Gathering ended a couple of hours later with a special announcement about the establishment of the Murnick Family Rishonim Endowment, which will help us maintain our young emissaries program for years to come. The hallway in the JCC, where we had gathered, turned into a cozy corner of Israel affection and connection.

The three boys were kidnapped by terrorists in the heart of Gush Etzion, one of our partner communities, where two of them were also studying. It makes it feel intimate, familiar, and close to home. In a response to the solidarity letter that our leadership sent to him, Gush Etzion’s Mayor Davidi Perl writes: "We are touched to see the support and solidarity of the Jewish communities around the world at this difficult time...once again we are trying to live normal life in an abnormal situation...due to the vast mobilization of IDF soldiers from all over the country, including elite unites and reservists, the residents are supplying round-the-clock refreshments at our Cozy Corner and along the roads."

The Cozy Corner for soldiers (Piña Chama La’chayalim) that Mayor Perl is referring to is the small booth in the Gush Etzion junction that was built in memory of two Gush residents who were killed by terrorists, Dr. Shmuel Gillis and Tzachi Sasson. It is operated by volunteers, and serves soup, snacks, and sweets, offers hot showers in residents’ homes, embraces the soldiers and, especially now, strengthens them in their holy mission to locate the three boys.

For us in Greater MetroWest it is not a remote place. We were the first Federation to financially support and partner with Gush Etzion. For the last 13 years many of our community members have visited Pina Chama with us on one of our missions. Like in any of our partnerships, the places, the faces, the smells, and the connections made become a cozy corner, part and parcel of our identity as a community.

On the local scene it is no different: Greater MetroWest embraced the Israeli shlichim and rishonim and carved out a Piña Chama for them in the community. (And not just physically on the second floor of the Whippany campus where their corner is the hot spot). There are lots of examples to demonstrate it. I will give you one today:

Sapir Malik didn’t start her “year of service” with us. She came later in the year from another community under harsh circumstances. Greater MetroWest, based on our cozy tradition, immediately opened its homes and hearts to give her the big hug that was so needed. She instantly became a beloved and productive member of our extended rishonim family.

Toward the end of the year Sapir decided to have her (never too late) Bat Mitzvah in the synagogue and community that had become her family. In her drasha (talk), she related to the unique connections, interactions, and reciprocity that she found in Temple Sha’arey Shalom and Greater MetroWest: “Having a Bat Mitzvah is one of the things that I learned from my students. I came here to teach them but ended up learning so much from them. I was given an opportunity to experience something that was always stimulating for me, especially reading the Torah, and the belief that it is never too late to do that.”

Our rishonim are going back home soon to serve in the IDF. Like many soldiers, I am sure that they will stop at the Cozy Corner of Gush Etzion. We all pray that they will go in peace and come in peace and that Naftali, Eyal and Gilad will be safely released soon. In any event, we all know for sure that the Pina Chama of their hearts will be kept forever and ever.

Drishat Shalom,




Posted by: admin (June 23, 2014 at 12:41 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Journey Is Not Completed

"Completing the journey" was the name of the last campaign by the Jewish people to bring to Israel the last members of the Ethiopian Jewish community. Indeed, most of this wonderful community is now in the Jewish State but the saga is not yet over. We have to make sure that their absorption and integration into the Israeli community will be as successful. The State of Israel, together with Diaspora Jewish communities, are doing a lot. Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is known for initiating and supporting Project Atzmaut in Rishon LeZion.

However, the financial and moral support from afar is not enough. We always believe that there is nothing like hands-on volunteering opportunities and the building of living bridge connections. We also know that many young adults in our community are eager to participate in tikkun olam (repairing the world) projects but don't think that it’s affordable and can be done in Israel.

So we have now developed the ultimate combination: a nine-month Masa Israel opportunity, heavily subsidized for a select group of North American young adults, in our partnered community of Rishon LeZion, where participants live, breathe, volunteer, and build connections with the Ethiopian Israeli community.

Here is how Dana Talmi, Yahel director, and current participants describe this unique program:

“Every time a student I am tutoring learns and internalizes a new word in English, every time a new connection is made between Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian Israelis at school, every time an older adult finds meaning and purpose in the urban agriculture project, and each time a teenager learns about their heritage and finds pride in themselves, I see social change in action.” This is how Harris Engelmann, a Yahel Social Change Program participant, described his experience.

For the past four years, Yahel has been working on grassroots community building and empowerment in an Ethiopian-Israeli community in the small Israeli town of Gedera. For the last two years we have wanted to expand our program to the Greater MetroWest partnered community of Ramat Eliyahu in Rishon LeZion. This fall it is finally happening!

The Yahel Social Change Program is unique in terms of the reach that the volunteers have in the community. They work with young children, teenagers, college students, and older adults in a variety of projects, including teaching English, informal youth education, one-on-one tutoring and urban agriculture.
So when we have decided to expand the program, we knew that the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood is where we wanted to be next because we knew that this level of immersion would be possible there. I came to know the uniqueness of the neighborhood and the warmth of its residents. I was introduced and developed great cooperation with Project Atzmaut, with Menachem Sanbato and his team. With the Matnas (community center), the municipality, and with the GMW Israel office staff.

In addition to the service and immersion aspects, another key aspect of the program is the learning component. The participants meet weekly to discuss pertinent, sometimes difficult, social issues that are happening in Israel. They meet with various organizations and activists and travel the country. There are several trips to visit different communities and create dialogue with members of different groups in Israel. The Yahel Social Change Program creates a safe space for participants to explore challenging issues and to ask questions about the Israel of today.

The program also provides an opportunity to connect young adults with Judaism and the global Jewish community. The group looks at texts from Torah and Midrash and asks how it applies to the work they’re doing and to the Jewish community today. Darya Watnick, a current Yahel participant, said, “Discovering that this community has such an unwavering faith in their religion and relationship to Israel has helped me feel more connected to Judaism and Israel. Living and working with the Ethiopian Israelis is one way I have shown my commitment to my faith by coming to understand and appreciate how they express their Jewish identity.”

With the support of Masa–Israel Journey, the Rishon LeZion municipality, the Greater MetroWest federation and private funding, the opening of the program in Rishon LeZion will enable more volunteers to have these life-changing experiences while contributing many hours of service to Ramat Eliyahu. We are working hard with Project Atzamut, our local partner in Rishon LeZion, to build the program and look forward to welcoming a new group in October 2014. We hope you will come and visit us in Rishon LeZion!

Are you a young adult ages 21-27 interested in being a part of the social justice movement in Israel? Then apply to the Yahel Social Change Program today! More information and applications can be found on our website here or by calling (919) 416-3333. Program costs are as low as $1,000 for those eligible for a Masa grant. Applications are due June 30.


Posted by: admin (May 28, 2014 at 11:42 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Shaping History, Sharing Identity. Just Do It.

We are approaching the peak of a very meaningful season for our people and our community. It was started with a Pesach seder (or two), when we celebrated our freedom as a nation and it went on with the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, our national traumatic disaster of the Holocaust. In both cases we are obliged to tell the stories to the next generations so nothing is forgotten, erased, or diminished from our personal and national identity.

But next week is our opportunity to learn from the past and make sure that we are strong and united as a community and as people. It is the week that symbolizes our revival as a nation. It starts with Yom HaZikaron, the commemoration day for so many Israeli soldiers and victims of terror, who gave their lives for the creation and protection of the state of Israel. The following day is Yom Ha'atzmaut, celebrating the 66th independence of our one and only Jewish state.

We are all part and parcel of this Zionist saga of the Jewish people and we are all committed to taking an active role in securing our continuity. In spite of tremendous challenges facing our country and our people, as we learned from our past, we will prevail if we come together. 

I urge each and every member of our Greater MetroWest community to take part in at least one opportunity that the Legow Family Israel Program Center has prepared for you next week. Our team is working tirelessly in order to provide you with the mitzvah of commemoration and celebration of Israel's 66th birthday. Just come and be part of sharing identity and shaping history:

  1. Attend the Yom HaZikaron commemoration. Sunday, May 4, at 7 p.m. Cooperman JCC, West Orange. A meaningful ceremony will be followed by a film screening and discussion groups with visiting Israeli delegations.
  2. Celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut at our community-wide concert. Monday, May 5, at 7.30 p.m. Montclair State University, featuring Israel's best performer, The Idan Raichel Project. Buy tickets at
  3.  Participate in a Yom Ha'atzmaut family carnival. Tuesday May 6, 6-9 p.m. YM-YWHA of Union County, Union. With food, music and Israel's spirit. Free and open to the public.
  4. Party like an Israeli at a Yom Ha'Atzmaut young adult celebration. Saturday, May 10, Doors open at 8:30 p.m.; event begins at 9. Room 84, 84 Washington St., Hoboken. Age 21+. RSVP by May 8 and get two free drinks!
  5. Meet with 50 Israeli visitors who are visiting Greater MetroWest next week as part of our living bridge connections: the MetroWest High-School teen delegation, Kibbutzim College students delegation, and the Peoplehood delegation from Ofakim/Merchavim.

For more details about any of Yom Ha'atzmaut programs, contact Justine Reuben at

Chag Sameach and Drishat Shalom,


Posted by: admin (April 29, 2014 at 11:32 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

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