Helping kids play outside again
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Helping kids play outside again

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The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s CEO, Jason Shames, in black t-shirt second from left, and the Jewish Federation of North America’s CEO, Jerry Silverman, fourth from left, as the delegates meet with Sderot’s Mayor Alon Davidi, center.

There’s an image from his trip to Israel last week that Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, cannot get out of his head.

Shames was with a delegation of 125 administrative and fundraising executives from the Jewish Federations of North America. They traveled together to Greece and Israel to assess overseas needs.

“Obviously there has been a lot of change in itinerary due to what’s been going on,” Mr. Shames said on Sunday, referring to Operation Protective Edge and the constant salvos from Gaza.

“Since we landed in Israel on Thursday, when things started escalating, we spent time devising what an emergency campaign should look like, and we decided to take a small group to show support in Sderot and Beersheva.”

The residents of these hard-hit communities are hurting, frustrated, and scared, though they are standing strong, Mr. Shames noted. The success of the Iron Dome defense battery system in shooting down many of the fired missiles from Gaza “has certainly made life easier for many, but I don’t feel the same way about folks in Sderot and Beersheva.”

In Beersheva, the group visited an immigrant absorption center and met new immigrants from Colombia, Kishinev, Tunisia, and Cuba. In the room next door, children were attending classes.

“Suddenly the [Code Red] alarm went off and we had 45 seconds to run into the shelter,” Mr. Shames said. “We saw all these adorable kids running for their lives, some tripping in their haste. We heard a bunch of ‘boom booms,’ and one little girl broke down crying and shaking.

“It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. I keep reliving the sight of watching an adult trying to console her.”

That morning, his group had awoken at 5, had breakfast and a security briefing, and then took off for Sderot, where they met with Mayor Alon Davidi and Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition.

“We heard a lot about the trauma and stress, the challenges and dreams of Sderot,” said Mr. Shames, who didn’t take a break to eat for nearly 12 hours. “I want to bring back the message that a Jew in Sderot is no less than a Jew in Tel Aviv and no less than a Jew in northern New Jersey.”

That message will underline a special campaign to raise $10 million to assist in the response to the rocket threat in the south, helping to provide respite for children and social services for victims of trauma, seniors, and people with disabilities.

“I will go home and explain why it’s so important to support Federation, because it’s motivating to see what is going on here on the ground,” said Mr. Shames, who lives in Haworth. “We are helping people. My utopian dream is that every single Jew in North Jersey will support Israel at whatever level they can, so these Jews never have to worry.

“This is an investment in Jewish youth. The little girl I saw in the absorption center deserves a shot to live a Jewish life the way she sees fit.”

Other local residents accompanying Mr. Shames were Dr. Zvi Marans of Teaneck, who is JFNNJ’s president; incoming president Jane Petak of River Vale; planning and allocations chair Roberta Abrams Paer of Montvale; JFNNJ Endowment Foundation managing director Robin Rochlin of Teaneck; Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman of Teaneck; JFNA senior vice president of philanthropic resources Reuben Romirowsky of Teaneck; and Elissa Maier of Englewood, head of JFNA’s Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence.

Additional JFNA missions were arriving in Israel this week to express support for the affected communities and outline specific initiatives.

Mr. Shames said the mood he detected in Israeli communities farther away from Gaza, but still in rocket range, was “extremely concerned, somewhat unsure, maybe borderline frightened, but certainly not fearful for the existence of the state. The idea of kids not being able to play outside has gotten in the way of normal life without destroying it. You do see people on the beach in Tel Aviv, but there’s not the buzz you normally see.”

As for Athens and Salonika, Mr. Shames reported seeing “a small, vibrant Jewish community that was once economically sustainable but now needs lots of help and support to allow them to build a Jewish community for tomorrow. We have an opportunity to positively help them. There was nothing better than going to a Greek Jewish school and seeing 75 kids coming to sing ‘Hatikvah’ with us during their summer vacation.”

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