November 19, 2018

Cover Story A Call for Support

Orli is the first to admit that she had everythinggoing for her while growing up in Brentwood: loving parents who tookher around the world, a top-flight Harvard education.

But Orli (not her real name) became an alcoholic,a disease, she says, that afflicted her father. At first, she woulddrink for social reasons. It made her feel less inhibited, smarterand more attractive. Eventually, she couldn’t control it. “I lovedlife, but alcohol took that away from me,” she says. “It had gottento the point where I wanted to die. I was trying to kill myself withalcohol. I found out my parents were ready to make funeralarrangements for me.”

After repeated relapses in a 12-step program, shevoluntarily checked into Gateways Beit T’Shuvah’s year-old women’shalfway house for recovering addicts. (A men’s facility is nearby.)One among 12 women, mostly drug addicts, Orli spent about four monthsat Beit T’Shuvah before leaving in mid-January.

At the house, she discovered the spiritual side ofJudaism through Torah study and prayer. “I felt like I was foolingpeople all my life. I didn’t know that I belonged…. Now I have anincredible amount of inner strength,” she says.

While at Beit T’Shuvah, Orli began to search forwork at the Jewish Vocational Service, where, after she worked for awhile as a secretary, she was offered a full-time job as a careercounselor; she instead accepted a position at another nonprofitJewish organization. Of the female staff at JVS, Orli says, “Theymade me feel worthy and good.”

Today, at 35, Orli says that she feels so”empowered” by God and by the people who have recently come into herlife that she wants to go to rabbinical school. “I know that badthings happen to good people sometimes, but I know if I keeppersevering for a long time, good things are going to come back tome.”

This Sunday, Super Sunday — the biggest singleday of fund raising for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’United Jewish Fund each year — some 50,000 Southland Jews may hearOrli’s story, as well as tales of the many others who have benefitedfrom the UJF and the agencies it helps support, like Gateways andJVS. About 5,000 volunteers will make phone calls, lick envelopes anddo person-to-person solicitations in an attempt to raise as muchmoney as possible for the UJF, which, through the Federation’s 15beneficiary agencies, helps immigrant Jews become citizens, providesscholarships for needy Jewish day-school children, feeds elderlyRussian Jews, educates Ethiopian children in Israel, providescounseling for families going through divorce, and saves souls likeOrli.

Like many other volunteers, Cheri Dekofsky turnsout to help on Super Sunday with the whole family, which includes her15-year-old son, Micah; 11-year-old daughter, Arielle; and husband,Michael. The children have been coming to Super Sunday for years.Arielle will make phone calls for the third year in a row.

“There’s something so incredible about being hereon Super Sunday with 700 volunteers,” Dekofsky says. “It’s astrengthening feeling that stays with me the whole year.”

Super Sunday is a day “when Jews connect to everyother Jews in the world,” says Super Sunday Chair David Aaronson. Hepredicts that more than $4.5 million will be raised on a single daythis year, spurred by a mileage promotion that the Federation isusing for the first time. For every new gift of at least $100, or foreach increase of $100, donors will earn 500 American Airlines airmiles — up to a maximum of 25,000 miles. (Of course, you have tomake good on your pledge to actually collect the bonus miles.)

In this, the year of Israel’s 50th birthday, theFederation is hoping Super Sunday will set the pace for achieving theorganization’s goal of raising $50 million in 1998, an almost20-percent increase over last year. Few believe that this will be aneasy target to reach. For one thing, some donors have been alienatedby Israel’s bitter and unresolved pluralism debate, and theFederation has had a tough task winning them over.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” admitsDekofsky. Still, she believes that people can be made to understandthat the small percentage of the money which goes to Israel is usedfor humanitarian purposes, such as resettling Russians, and not tothe government.

Federation overseas allocations, which includefunds to Israel through the Jewish Agency and to 58 other countriesthrough the Joint Distribution Committee, have, in fact, shrunk fromaround 43 percent in recent years to about 33 percent, as more moneyhas been allocated to local beneficiaries.

For instance, this year the Federation willincrease its allocation to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1million, much of it going to support scholarships at Jewish day andHebrew schools. It’s all part of the Federation’s focus on Jewishcontinuity — the preservation of Jewish identification among theyoung by supporting educational and other programs that studies haveshown tend to keep young people Jewish.

“There is a clear understanding that lack ofJewish continuity in the United States imperils us from the inside,”says Dekofsky, who’s co-chairing the Jewish Federation/ValleyAlliance Super Sunday effort. “If we don’t invest now, who will takecare of the next generation?”

It is such arguments that you will undoubtedlyhear when you pick up your phone this Sunday.

Or you may hear some real-life tales, such asOrli’s.

Super Stories

The Jewish Federation’s United Jewish Fund hopesto raise at least $4.5 million on Super Sunday in support of theUJF’s 15 beneficiary agencies, which provide vital services to somany in Los Angeles, Israel and throughout the world. Below are a fewstories of people who have benefited from such assistance. Some nameshave been changed to protect confidentiality.

Jewish Family Service: A Caring Place

Three years ago, Rose lost her husband in amotorcycle accident. It was just two weeks shy of their fourthwedding anniversary. Feeling helpless, Rose grieved alone. “I neededsomeone very bad,” she says. “My husband just went on a motorcycletrip and was supposed to be gone for the weekend. The next thing Iknew, he didn’t come back.”

Not only did Rose lose her husband, but her twostepchildren, who had lived with them, went to live elsewhere.”Instead of the family getting closer, there was a lot of animosity,and we drifted apart,” she says.

Rose, now 41, had been extremely dependent on herhusband, and his loss created other problems for her. “He used to doeverything for me. I was like a princess,” she says. “I became likebrain-dead when I had to figure out the VCR. So not only did I haveto cope with everything, I realized that I couldn’t do a damnthing.”

About two months after the accident, a friendconvinced Rose to seek counseling from Jewish Family Service at theMilken Center in West Hills. “They made me know I had come to theright place,” she says.

Rose still goes to counseling regularly and saysthat it has been a lifesaver. “I guess you never believe it whenpeople say you heal with time,” she says. “You hurt, but every singleday brings a lot of joy, where I thought it never would.”

Jewish Big Brothers: Reaching Out

Aaron Weisblatt with little brother, Grant

About 10 years ago, Brad Lemack was busy buildinga job in entertainment public relations. A single guy in his early30s, he felt that something was missing from his life, so he
decidedto become a Jewish Big Brother to the 5 1/2-year-old son of a singlemother. Every other weekend, he would pick up Mark and take him tothe movies, out to lunch or to run errands. Lemack developed arapport with the child that lasted through a very difficult time –when the boy’s mother died of breast cancer just six months after hisbar mitzvah — to the present day.

Lemack and Mark are no longer big brother-littlebrother, but are good friends. Mark, 16, is about to get hislearner’s permit and “is a killer” on the high school basketballteam, says his former big brother.

Meanwhile, Lemack, 42, became so enthralled withJBB that he handles their PR. The experience of being a big brotherwas as valuable to him as it was for Mark, he says. “He reminded methat in a society where material possessions seem to matter, and whatyou amass and what you make seem to be core, how we relate to eachother means more than any of that.”

Jewish Agency: A Hand to Ethiopian Jews

Shuanesh Miniwab and MichaFeldman

Micha Feldman, the Jewish Agency’s consultant onEthiopian projects, was the Israeli counsel in Addis Ababa and headof the Jewish Agency mission to Ethiopia in May 1991, when 14,310Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in fewer than 24 hours. Afluent Amharic speaker, Feldman knows virtually every family inIsrael’s Ethiopian community, which has grown to 60,000. Thatincludes 21-year-old Shuanesh Miniwab and her family.

Feldman and Shuanesh are currently on a speakingtour of the United States, telling the story of how their pathscrossed, of how Feldman reunited a divided family in Israel afterShuanesh fled with her parents and five siblings, leaving behindgrandparents and an ailing sister and brother.

As a little girl, Shuanesh had dreamed of leavingher small village — where her family was one of only five Jewishfamilies — to go to Jerusalem. The family owned nothing — no land,house, car or TV. Her father worked three jobs, and her mother madepottery.

One night, Shuanesh and her family gathered theirmeager possessions and began walking toward the golden city,Jerusalem. They had hoped to meet her grandparents, brother andsister in Sudan. Instead, the parents, with children ranging in agefrom 4 to 18, walked for two weeks through the desert, traveling atnight to avoid the heat and robbers. Along the way, they met otherEthiopian Jews bound for Jerusalem. In Sudan, they lived a year in arefugee camp, where there was little to eat and conditions weredeplorable. Her whole family became sick, and Shuanesh worked as adishwasher, becoming their sole support at the age of 7.

After waiting in vain for their relatives toarrive, the family finally went to Israel and settled in Ashkelon,where they lived for several years in an apartment provided by thegovernment. Shuanesh enrolled in school for the first time, at 8. Buther mother couldn’t forget the family left behind and asked Shuaneshto write a letter to Feldman, whom the Ethiopian Jews in Israelviewed as a kind of patriarch and close friend.

Shuanesh wrote that she hadn’t seen her sister andbrother in seven years; that her parents fought constantly; that sheherself cried a lot. “I’m small, and I don’t understand a lot….Maybe you can understand,” she wrote. “Maybe, please, I beg you tobring my sister and brother to Israel.”

Feldman did just that, and, now, he and Shuaneshare telling the story wherever they’re invited. Last week, inSouthern California, it was at Super Sunday training sessions,synagogues and schools. The Ethiopian Jews in Israel are still facingmassive challenges, Feldman says. “In general, they’re accepted, butyou don’t see real absorption in the society.”

(About 33 percent of UJF dollars go to fundoverseas aid and projects in Israel and 58 other countries. The moneythat goes to the Ethiopian Jews supports education, welfare for theelderly, vocational training and helping them document their long,largely unwritten history.)

Feldman thinks that this will change with time,but there are urgent needs right now. Education is particularlyimportant. Israel’s version of affirmative action, he explains duringa phone conversation, is to let all Ethiopians under 30 study withoutpaying, with the Jewish Agency and Israeli government splitting thecost. Right now, Feldman says, there are about 25,000 Ethiopians inelementary through high school grades, with 1,400 in college. Feldmanhopes that the college figure will double or triple. Shuanesh plansto be one of that number.

Meanwhile, she is working in Brooklyn as awaitress — and telling her tale to Jewish groups, who can greatlyassist her and other Ethiopian Jews by giving to the UJF.

A Plea: Remember Russia’s Jews

By Naomi Pfefferman,

Alla Levy, (center) director general of TheJewish Agency in Russia.
One day in 1996, Alla Levy, directorgeneral of the Jewish Agency in Russia, rushed into the JusticeMinistry in Moscow to pick up the agency’s permit to operate andteach Judaism in Russia. It was perhaps the first time that Jewisheducation was officially recognized in Russia. And Levy, a formerrefusenik, was jubilant.

“For me, it was the closing of the circle becauseit was in this city that I was once considered a ‘nationalistextremist’ for studying Hebrew,” said Levy, who has made a career ofhelping Russian Jewry.

In Los Angeles this month to plead their case,Levy is worried that American Jews will withhold gifts to the UnitedJewish Fund because they are angry about perceived religious andpolitical difficulties in Israel. But a substantial part of UJFfunding goes to help Jews in the former Soviet Union, she said. Themoney feeds the hungry elderly, pays for summer camps and helps fundthe aliyah of more than 50,000 Jews each year. More than half of theagency’s budget comes from U.S. Jewish federations.

“So, by withholding money, American Jews arepunishing the wrong people, people who desperately need our help,”Levy said.

Not that she is without her opinions on thecontroversies that are alienating American Jews. She talks franklyabout the conflict over whether only Orthodox law should rule inIsrael. For example, some 30 percent of Russian olim are non-Jewish,according to Jewish law, she said. If one should want to marry aJewish spouse, he or she would have to travel abroad for theceremony. When such olim die while serving in the Israeli army, theycannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“That is a disgrace,” Levy said. “But it is partof the growing pains of the Israeli people. Any attempt to present itas something between American Jews and Israel is very sad.”

Levy, 48, is so passionate about the future ofRussian Jewry that she left her desk job in Jerusalem to lead thedelegation in the field last year. “The move shows the level of hercommitment,” said Gad Ben-Ari, executive vice president of the JewishAgency, American section. “With Alla, there is hardly a fine linebetween her personal background and her work.”

During an interview, Levy’s voice trembled as sherecalled her childhood in Moscow. She did not learn she was Jewishuntil she was 7, when her nationality was registered at school.Thereafter, she had to recite her ethnicity at the beginning of eachschool year: “It always came out in the whisper because I knew allthe other children would laugh,” Levy said. “This was the only Jewisheducation I received, but it was a very strong one.”

while riding the subway on June 5, 1967, shesaw the newspaper headline that changed her life. The Six-Day War hadbroken out in the Middle East, and a “Jewish state” was responsible,she read. Levy, who hadn’t known there was an Israel, felt”tremendous joy at discovering there was a place in the world where Ibelonged.”

Desperate for more information, she joined theburgeoning Jewish underground; discovered the Moscow synagogue;”devoured” an illegal copy of Leon Uris’ “Exodus”; passed outpamphlets at the gates of the Kremlin; and was called to the infamousKGB headquarters. In the end, she was lucky: She was one of 20″troublemakers” ordered to leave the country within five days inOctober 1970. In effect, Levy said, she was among the first of thewave of olim that began in the early 1970s and has reached 850,000 todate.

In Israel, Levy wrote a book about her life, “Likea Song, Like a Dream.” She climbed up the ranks of the Jewish Agency,and, upon the advent of perestroika, she was asked to establish anagency special unit for the dissolving Soviet Union. With her staff,she sought out Jews from Tashkent to Khabarovsk; established aliyahstations and direct flights to Tel Aviv from 25 cities; and developeda network of Hebrew and basic Judaism classes for all RussianJews.

Today, she says, aliyah has stabilized to 50,000to 60,000 per year, a “good pace” for absorption. Since 70 percent ofolim are under age 45, she expects the Jewish population to decreaseand aliyah to drop to 20,000 annually by 2010, barring a severe waveof anti-Semitism.

But Levy does not believe that the 1.2 millionJews still in the former Soviet Union should remain. “I personallyfeel that the former U.S.S.R. is not a place for Jews to build theirfuture, because that part of the world has proved itself to returntime and again to anti-Semitism,” she said.

Levy wants American Jews to help Jews leave Russiaby contributing to the UJF, despite feelings about the controversiesin Israel. “Please don’t take stands that are going to hurt peoplewho need us,” she said.