Celebrating in the rain

Celebrating in the rain

The JCC’s Rubin Run and Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities kept going, as more than 1,100 people embraced Israel

Remember “It rained and poured for forty daysies daysies — drove those animals crazy crazy, Children of the Lord”?

(It’s the ark song, the animals are “elephants and kangaroosies,” and for those of you who now have it chirping endlessly, mindlessly, in your head, we’re sorry!)

It’s rained almost that much here for the past interminable weeks, but last Shabbat was different. It was bright. The sun shone, the flowers glowed, the trees showed off, the little white clouds were placid. It was so full of promise.

Then on Sunday, nah. Back to the nasty drip of cold mud.

This is relevant here because Sunday was a big day for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. It was the USA Track & Field-approved Rubin Run, where about a thousand or so serious runners race on courses of various distances, early in the morning, to raise money for the JCC’s special services, as they have been doing for nearly four decades. And then it was the JCC’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, where Israeli and American families can go to celebrate the State of Israel, meet each other, eat, schmooze, and have fun.

Oh, and it’s also Mother’s Day, a fact lost on none of the organizers.

And then it rained and poured — back to those aforementioned forty daysies, and also nightsies.

What to do?

A little boy encourages his mother as she runs.

The race went off as planned, with perhaps fewer runners but still the same amount of money raised, and perhaps even extra enthusiasm in response to the weather. (How often can you run with the ducks?) As planned, each mother who ran got a red rose as she finished. As they crossed the finish line, the runners could see their reflections in the puddles in the road.

“As an Israeli, I am not used to this weather,” Arielle Elad said. She’s the manager of community leadership and engagement for the New Jersey chapter of the Israeli American Council. “I couldn’t believe what a miserable day it was.”

But — perhaps again as an Israeli — “it was okay because we plan ahead. Plan A was to have it outside, and Plan B was to move indoors, so we switched.”

She and other staffers at the JCC and the IAC, which is an independent organization housed at the JCC, “brought the outdoors indoors,” she said.

They covered half of the auditorium floor with turf, moved in the tables, covered with blue-and-white tablecloths, and put vases of the little yellow wildflowers that carpet Israel at this time of year on them. They added sunflowers and beach umbrellas. “It was a very fun area to hang out it,” Arielle said. “It made it feel like the outdoors and gave a little bit of the vibe of Israel.”

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades welcomed visitors from the soggy outdoors to celebrate Israel. (ALONA COHEN)

Many of the organizations that sponsor the IAC and the celebration showed up. Many of them are aimed at the American Jewish community in general, while others are more specifically for or at least about Israelis.

There were about 1,100 people at the celebration, Arielle said. Exhibits and displays and games and activities were scattered around the JCC. “We had a Hebrew program called Bereisheet, the nitzaim from Fair Lawn, the Israeli Scouts, lots of Israeli childhood games” — she’s not quite sure what many of them are in English, but they include hopscotch and jump rope, as well as another rope-jumping game similar to the one we used to call Chinese jump rope. There was a scavenger hunt around the building.

The Bereisheet Hebrew program station offered activities for kids based on the women who were part of the Beresheet space shuttle program. (Yes, the spelling is different. It’s a hard word to transcribe to English.)

Because the theme was Women of Valor — Eshet Chayil, in another nod to Mother’s Day — many of the stations on the scavenger hunt were about women. One was about Golda Meir, and another one was about Jewish and Israeli women in the film and television industries. Each included exercises for kids of different ages; the one from Bereisheet, which referred to the rocket that crashed-landed on the moon (the moon part was very much on purpose but the crash landing part, not so much) was to build a model of the spaceship using popsicle sticks and glue.

There was Israeli music and food, including gigantic Israeli breakfasts, and faux grass to eat on, should you feel so inclined; if your favorite eating position was more upright, well, there were tables and benches for that. There was face-painting and balloon-shaping, and little balls of chocolate for the little kids to play with before they ate.

“It was really cool,” Arielle said.

The IAC team stands together; from left, Noa Raab, Nitzan Levy, Hila Levy, Iris Heyman, and Arielle Elad. (NOURIT EILAM)

Although Arielle’s office is at the JCC — where she was on staff, at the Israeli Center three years ago — now she works for the IAC. “We have a very good collaboration with the JCC,” she said. “We have mutual goals, and they are great supporters of ours. There is a home for us — a real home — at the JCC.”

The IAC is a national organization that has 22 offices in as many states. It’s not accidental that its New Jersey home is in Tenafly. “Tenafly has the largest Israeli community in New Jersey,” Arielle said. “We’re the hub of the community.”

There are Israelis in most of the Northern Valley towns — they’re also in Cresskill, Closter, and Demarest. “There also, of course, are Israelis in Englewood and Teaneck,” Arielle said. Altogether, she estimated, there are about 3,000 families in the Bergen County community. “And it’s growing every year, fortunately or unfortunately,” she said. “Lots of Israeli families relocate here for work.”

She knows that pattern firsthand. Until she was 7 years old she lived in Queens, and then her parents made aliyah. Now, she and her family live in Tenafly; they moved to New Jersey when her husband got a job offer that he couldn’t refuse. “I consider myself Israeli because that is where I grew up,” she said. “Absolutely 100 percent I plan to go back. This summer, I will have lived here for seven years, and that is way too long. I want my kids” — they’re now 11 and 14 — “to get the chance to grow up as Israelis.”

Children got their faces painted. (NOURIT EILAM)

For now, they’re doing what they can to make sure their kids are exposed to Israeli culture, and they’re not alone in that. “As Israelis, we feel more comfortable around other Israelis,” she said. “I think that Israelis usually feel that it is very important that their kids stay connected to Israeli culture and heritage, and they look for every possible way to keep them connected. That’s why the IAC has programs that run for people from very young ages through teens through college students. That is why we have programs for young professionals and leadership programs for adults and for teens.”

But there’s always a balance. These leadership programs, for example, are in English, and they are open both to Israelis and to American Jews. The program for teens “teaches about entrepreneurship and leadership, and they bring in a lot about Israel. We bring in professionals to speak to the kids, and almost all of them are Israeli.”

These programs sometimes help kids learn not only about entrepreneurship in the abstract but guide them as they use their skills to create. In a program for high school kids that she saw, Arielle added, with some awe, “the kids are so tech-y that in six hours they had a website up and running about how to make a trip to Israel, with tips on where to stay and where to eat and where to hike. They did that for the north of Israel, and then another for the center of the country, and then for the south, and then for Eilat. And they used videos and Instagram.

“It comes so easily to them!” she mock-lamented. “It makes me feel so old!”

The IAC’s objective is “to build a strong, united community, and to secure the Jewish identity for the next generation, and strengthen their bonds to Israel, and to love and support Israel,” Arielle said.

“Our mission is to build bridges and connections to the American Jewish community, so every time that we can reach out and have programs that are geared not only to the Israeli community but to the American community, we do it.”

The organization is supported mainly by some large donors, although it welcomes contributions from smaller ones as well, she said. “Our main donor is Sheldon Adelson,” the casino owner billionaire, who, with his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, is a major philanthropist both in the United States and in Israel, and who also is a very prominent donor and huge influence on the Republican Party.

Children also created their own art. (NOURIT EILAM)

Mr. Adelson keeps politics out of the IAC, Arielle said. “I can tell you as someone who has worked for the IAC for three years that I have never ever once felt any political anything. No one was ever pushed to do or not do anything. We stay out of politics completely. We are not about politics at all. We are about connecting and building community.”

The IAC has big annual conventions, she said. “I was at every conference except for one — there have been five — and I can tell you that we are not about politics. We don’t care about politics. Adelson always says that we are not about right or left, but about building a strong community.

“In our conference, we always have members of the Knesset from the right and from the left. We always have Democrats and Republicans, senators and congressmen. At our last conference, in Hollywood, Florida, we had Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mike Pence.

“We are not political,” Arielle said. “We give everybody a place and a voice.”

Jordan Shenker, the JCC’s CEO, thought that the day gives a powerful message.

An art exhibit about important Israeli women was created by women from the local Israeli community. (NOURIT EILAM)

It’s a celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, he pointed out. “It’s a celebration that’s community wide, one of the few things we do that reaches out to the entire community, and it draws thousands of people.

“Yom Ha’atzmaut and Purim are the two days when we are the center point of the Jewish community. We get several thousand people on each of those days; we are the destination for celebration.”

It’s not only fun, though; it’s also deeply symbolic, he said.

“We view Yom Ha’atzmaut as the culmination of a three-day arc. It was very intentionally placed on the Jewish calendar in proximity to Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron so we can experience the sorrow of remembrance of the losses of the Holocaust and the memorial to the victims of hostilities, or war and terror, throughout the world, and then to wrap that experience with the celebration of independence.

“We try not to lose sight of the idea that while this is a celebratory event, it also wraps those other experiences. It says that regardless of the sorrow we have experienced, we remain strong and open to the future.”

Mr. Shenker thought back to the way the day started, with the downpour that accompanied the Rubin Run and kept going throughout the day.

“The run could have been a downer, with all the rain, but the people who came out for it were so invigorated by the experience, by coming out to support the idea of running for our special needs department, for supporting the work we do for children and adults with special needs, that it really was a feel-good moment.

“And the connection to Mother’s Day was really cool,” he added. “A lot of people come in celebration of their moms.”

In other words, as long as they’re invigorated at the JCC, let it rain!

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