Letter from Israel

Letter from Israel

A dozen heroes

Tova Saul set up cat-feeding stations in Old Jerusalem.

Anyone who’s been to Israel during the High Holy Day season can attest to the joys of being in a nation that runs according to the Jewish calendar.

Public buses flash New Year’s blessings intermittently with the bus number and destination. Every business acquaintance, everyone at the gym and the supermarket and the hardware store, religious, traditional, or secular, will wish you a sweet, good year. Apples, honey, pomegranates – and fish heads, if that’s your custom – fly off store shelves like hotcakes. Sukkah-sellers pop up on street corners everywhere. Groupon deals for lulav and etrog sets abound.

But here’s something new: The week of Rosh Hashanah, my neighbor Jacob Richman discovered that one egg in a carton he bought was stamped with “Chag sameach” (“happy holiday”) in addition to its usual expiration date.

In the spirit of that awesome dozen, I want to introduce you to 12 categories of Israeli unsung heroes about whom I wrote, or met, in 5773. I pray that their accomplishments will continue to “hatch” and their recognition will continue to grow in 5774.

1. Israel Trauma Coalition Director Talia Levanon, who brought a six-person team of Israeli experts to lead 17 training workshops for clergy, school, and hospital personnel in the Boston area following the April 15 Boston Marathon terror attack. Their trip was paid for by the Boston Jewish federation.

2. Prof. Ilan Daniels Rahimi, who implemented and heads programs at Ono Academic College for special populations, including the world’s only B.A. tracks designed for Druze women and for adults with Asperger’s syndrome. This forward-thinking college also has a separate track for ultra-Orthodox students.

3. The first-ever Ethiopian-born Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, who overcame tragedy and deprivation in childhood to become a role model for young Jews everywhere, as her visit to Solomon Schechter of Bergen County attests. Ahead of the international pageant, she is raising money for a youth center in Netanya.

4. Rabbi Guy Avihod, co-founder of Shaf Yativ, which innovates new ways to integrate about 200 Israelis with mental illness into society. Programs include a beit midrash (study hall) for religious male clients and the new Botanica garden shop in Jerusalem, which provides transitional employment and therapeutic nature activities.

5. Enid Wurtman, who fought to get Soviet refuseniks out of Russia. Originally from Philadelphia, she joined them as a new immigrant to Israel in the 1970s and continues quietly raising funds to provide basic needs for many former refuseniks. She taught her children well: Son Carmi co-founded Festival BaShekel, bringing top-name concerts to underprivileged Israeli populations for a ticket price of one shekel. Son Elie turned an old neglected vineyard into Bat Shlomo Winery, a social business employing students from an alternative high school in an agricultural work-study program.

6. Barbara Silverman, an immigrant from Chicago who founded A Package from Home in 2000. Far more than 135,000 packages assembled by volunteers since have gone out to lone, indigent, and wounded soldiers. Each typically contains a bath towel, socks, t-shirt, boxer shorts, toiletries, snacks, and warm winter clothing, and each is accompanied by a letter of appreciation from Jewish children from across the world.

7. Mariuma Klein, a formerly homeless teen born in New York, who has nurtured and rehabilitated some 30,000 Israeli runaways through her gorgeous Shanti House shelters in Tel Aviv and the Negev over the past 29 years. She has taught her unique approach to organizations that work with runaways in Australia, Germany, Mexico, and elsewhere.

8. Rabbis Shaul Inbari and Shalomi Eldar, cofounders of Inbar, a national organization that creates opportunities for social integration between adults with disabilities. Inbari has severe cerebral palsy and met his wife, Neta, at one of the first events. Their wedding was widely watched on Israeli television and became a YouTube hit.

9. Javier Gelbwaser, a Mexican émigré who spearheads collective Jewish art projects, such as a Guinness record-winning Israeli flag painted with 28,267 Birthright participants’ fingerprints. Gelbwaser also implemented two extremely popular experiential courses for non-Jewish students at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School; one is on coexistence in the Middle East and the other is on Israeli innovation.

10. Rabbi Ari Solomont, a Boston transplant whose Cycle for Unity (http://cycleforunity.org/) philanthropy model allows bikers to participate in one ride for the benefit of any Jewish charity. More than 130 Israelis, Americans, Dutch, Brits, and Australians raised tens of thousands of dollars through the first series of rides in Israel last Passover.

11. Tova Saul and Khaya Dinsky, American expats who rescue, care for, and find adoptive homes for street animals. Tova, a tour guide, set up cat-feeding stations in the Old City of Jerusalem and is active in the humane trap-neuter-release program. Khaya, a teacher, founded Hatzalat Hayot animal rescue organization in Ashkelon and teaches children to be kind to strays.

12. Jay Shultz, who grew up in Fair Lawn and has transformed Tel Aviv into a warm community for “young internationals” living and working in the city. His Am Yisrael Foundation is the umbrella for successful social, cultural and volunteer initiatives such as the Tel Aviv International Salon, Tel Aviv Arts Council, White City Shabbat, Adopt-A-Safta, and synagogue revitalization.

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