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Empowering Ethopian Families

By CARING, COMMUNITY, GLOBAL JEWRY, People in Need

Empowering Yokneam’s Ethiopian Families
Young Ethiopian families in our Israel Partnership city of Yokneam are more successful than earlier immigrant generations, but many are still considered at-risk due to persistent illiteracy and underemployment. A new report on Federation’s investment in the Maof empowerment program demonstrates that positive mentoring and counseling interventions can change lives. Maof, which expresses “vision, courage and imagination” in Hebrew, provides heads of households with one-on-one counseling, mentorship on budget management, higher education and career development, and Hebrew language lessons, where needed. Federation’s Global Jewish Peoplehood committee reports these encouraging outcomes:

  • 8 families received consulting in monthly income management. Four of them have kept their accounts balanced. One family improved from constant debt to saving up to 2000 NIS a month.
  • 8 individuals improved their occupational status, finding better jobs with higher salaries. At least 4 more individuals are in the process of securing jobs such as technician, bookkeeper, bus driver, and more.
  • 20 individuals improved their educational status and launched new studies to earn academic degrees or professional courses.
  • 5 families received emotional therapy or domestic consulting. In 3 families there was a situation of domestic violence. Another woman had a fear of driving which kept her from being able to work. Due to the therapy, she overcame her fear, got a driving license and found a job.

During the 2018-2019 year, thirty families were served by the Family Center in Yokneam. The support services included identification of major needs, setting goals, and working to move individuals forward in their lives toward better employment and economic independence.

One-on-one mentorship really made the difference in this empowerment program. One participant said: “I was all the time occupied with worrying about my son. I could not afford buying him a computer or sending him to after school activities. Now that this is covered by the program, I am available to take care of myself. I am forever thankful for this support.”

Another commented, “She (the mentor) didn’t give up on me! She believed in me more than I have   believed in myself. She all the time urged me and pushed me to sign up. Now I am a student and I am still going to meetings with her to get the emotional support and encouragement. Sometimes just for good advice.”

What Does Secular Judaism Mean?

By Atlanta Birthright Community Trips, COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, NextGen

By: Robin Glaubman

Just six weeks ago I traveled to Israel for the first time with 38 strangers on Atlanta’s Birthright Israel summer trip. Quite honestly, I’d never been around so many Jews in my life! I grew up never going to synagogue, attending one Passover seder, one bar mitzvah, and the only Jewish holiday we ever celebrated was Hanukkah. Still, I have always strongly identified as Jewish. I’ve called myself a Heritage Jew, meaning that I was not a religious Jew. The concept of being a “secular” Jew wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. I didn’t realize before the trip that it was yet another way to be Jewish.

Our Birthright bus ranged from people who attended synagogue every week and spoke Hebrew, to myself and eight others who struggled through a phonetic pronunciation of the Torah blessings during our bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies in Jerusalem, and just about every shade of observance in between. When we arrived in Israel we were told to make the trip about ourselves. Not to be self-absorbed, but to make sure we were experiencing our own authentic Jewish journey.  It was good advice. I never felt like my opinion wasn’t valid or didn’t want to be heard. I never felt like any less of a Jew than anyone else on the trip.

One night I had a conversation with a fellow secular Jew that really stands out in my mind. We were debating what were the most important aspects of being Jewish. Raising Jewish families? Supporting Israel? Studying Torah? His ideas startled me. And his definition of what is a secular Jew challenged me deeply.

For many years growing up he’d attended a havurah, which I learned is not a synagogue, but a group of people who get together for Shabbat and holidays, usually without a rabbi. He spoke some Hebrew, and he had a bar mitzvah at age thirteen. This shocked me! How could you call yourself a secular Jew and be so involved, so connected to Judaism as a religion. His definition of secular vs. religious hinged on whether or not a person believes in G-d.  He also implied that he could not be considered ‘religious’ because he was not Orthodox. This too shocked me. Growing up he was surrounded by Orthodox Jews, so that was what religious Judaism looked like to him.

To me, he was one of the most Jewishly connected people I’d ever met. I may have been one of the least connected Jews he’d ever met. And yet here we were in Israel, on a trip for Jewish young adults, attempting to reconcile some very macro-level questions of what it means to be Jewish. These were big conversations for me. And they’re big conversations for all of us.

While each day of Birthright was filled with a whirlwind of hikes, history lessons, monuments, water activities and limitless information, this conversation remains my biggest takeaway. There are no bad Jews. There are no lesser Jews. We all do Judaism differently and we all do it right. By making the trip about my own Jewish journey, I found a place in Judaism that I could call my own.

Mental Health Responder Toolkit

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Federation Innovation, INNOVATION, People in Need, PHILANTHROPY

Imagine if more people re-thought mental illness as a quest for mental and spiritual wellness. Imagine if more people had the tools to understand, support, and overcome the shame, stigma and challenges of substance abuse. Now, with support from a Federation Innovation Propel grant, Atlanta-based Blue Dove Foundation is moving in exactly that direction, addressing issues of mental illness and substance abuse through a compassionate Jewish lens. Blue Dove works locally and beyond to educate, equip, and ignite our Jewish community with tools to understand mental illness and substance abuse and connect them with the right local resources, such as professionals from JFC&S. They are in the midst of creating a Mental Health Toolkit packed with resources and written by local rabbis and health professionals, to increase understanding and extend hands of healing.

Blue Dove’s Toolkit begins by articulating Jewish mental health values and defines the key issues that individuals and families struggle with. For example, the concept of b’tzelem elohim — to be created in the divine image — suggests that any conversation about mental wellness must begin with a foundation of dignity and respect. This can counter the shame of illness and the tendency to hide from conversations around mental health.

Or, refuah shleimah — healing and wholeness. Judaism recognizes that healing is not just physical; it is holistic. When we pray the misheberach for healing, we pray for refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf, a healing of spirit and of body. The Jewish emphasis is also on healing, not on curing. Even when mental illness is under control, healing and a return to wholeness is in order. We see healing as a process, one that has many components and may be a lifelong journey.

The Toolkit will also provide a comprehensive list of local resources to recognize, respond, and set people on the road to healing.  The hope is that people will become more comfortable talking openly about mental health, mental wellness and illness. Learn more at Blue Dove Foundation.

PJ Library Welcomes All

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

What’s a “typical Jewish family?” PJ Library understands that’s not a simple question. According to Sarah Bernstein, Federation’s Family Impact Associate, “Atlanta’s PJ Library families live ITP and OTP. They come from at least seven different countries, speak many languages, and represent LGBTQ+, interracial and interfaith households.” While free Jewish book subscriptions remain the centerpiece of the program, there’s a growing focus in Atlanta on PJ Library as a community-building tool. Both PJ Library and PJ Baby create community programs that connect young Jewish families, right in their neighborhoods. Ana Rodriguez, who is a PJ Baby Connector in Smyrna/Vinings, exemplifies family diversity. Born in Guatemala, Ana is a Jew by choice and is married to Andrew. Together they are raising Melanie, who is now three. In her role as a PJ Baby Connector, Ana has met and befriended many Jewish families. “PJ Library has helped me to create a strong Jewish community around the area where we live. I’m finding Jewish friends for Melanie, and for me.”

PJ Library has an institutional commitment to honor family diversity. Every event they offer bears this message:  All events are open to interfaith, LGBTQ+, multiracial and families and children of all abilities. “We want to make it possible for anyone to participate and find Jewish connections,” Sarah Bernstein says. “If you’re an observant family, we’ll tailor an event in your neighborhood that respects your needs. Recently we’ve been partnering with the Jewish Abilities Alliance and have adapted events for children with disabilities.”

Andrea Waldman appreciates the openness. “I wanted to have additional ways of connecting to Judaism in our home since we are not members of a synagogue. As same sex parents we potentially have more obstacles as my partner’s parents practice a different faith/religion. I have a solid Jewish background however, through PJ Library we have actually become even more open and understanding to all perspectives.”

PJ Library also honors family diversity with books published in Hebrew, Russian and Spanish. “I wanted my daughter to have the opportunity to read and know more about Jewish values, traditions, and holidays in a way that make sense to her,” Ana Rodriguez remembers. “I am raising Melanie bilingually, so when I first signed up for PJ Library, I asked if there were any books in Spanish and Nathan Brodsky, Federation’s Family Impact Manager, mailed me three books! I was so touched by that.”

Three Questions for Kelly Cohen

By COMMUNITY, JumpSpark

Q:  How did your background as a Judaic Studies teacher prepare you to lead JumpSpark?

Kelly: One of the most amazing parts of being the Director of JumpSpark is being able to grow with the teens and families of teens in our community. I spent my first six years in Atlanta working at The Davis Academy, and now so many of the kids I taught in elementary school are the teens JumpSpark serves. My work as a Jewish educator has taught me that there are a million ways to connect to Judaism and Jewish tradition, and that my role is to be a guide on that journey of connection. To be a part of a teen’s or a family’s Jewish journey for almost a decade is one of the true pleasures of my work and I am so happy I get to do it now with JumpSpark.

Q: What do you mean when you say, “JumpSpark creates more defining moments for Jewish teens?”

Kelly: The teenage years are crucial in terms of identity exploration and growth. I was a very active NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) member when I was a teen and even spent the first semester of my senior year of high school studying abroad in Israel. Those were defining Jewish moments for me that set me on the path to be a Jewish educator and a committed member of the Jewish community. JumpSpark wants to help teens to have their own defining Jewish moments that hopefully connect them to the Jewish community. We know that a one-size-fits-all model isn’t going to work for all teens, so JumpSpark is working to build and fund new ways to create those moments for teens today.

Q: What can we expect from JumpSpark in the 2019-20 school year?

Kelly: We have so much planned for next school year.  For teens we will be launching a new cohort of our Strong Women Fellowship and a new Teen Israel Taskforce. JumpSpark also just made a $260,000 investment in expanding and enriching the teen landscape, so keep your eyes open for new teen opportunities all around the city. Speaking of being all around the city, we are expanding our Navigating Parenthood series to three locations: Intown, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta, so more parents can gain the network, resources, and skills to parent teens today. Finally, we are expanding JumpSpark Professional and offering more high-level training and networking for the Jewish professionals in our community who work with teens. JumpSpark gained a lot of momentum this year and we are ready to take it to the next level in the coming school year.

How Friendship Circle Inspired Me

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Jewish Abilities Alliance, Jewish Camp Initiative, JEWISH JOURNEYS, People in Need

By Daniel Stern

I was still a freshman at The Weber School when my older sisters suggested it was time I took part in Tikkun Olam(repairing the world.) It was at this point that I decided to volunteer with Friendship Circle’s “Buddies at Home” program. I signed up and became a buddy to a young adult with special needs named Mike. Mike and I met nearly weekly, as our schedules permitted, and we had so much fun hanging out, playing sports together, going to the dog park, having lunch, and things like that. It was a great relationship.

By the time I was a sophomore, I began to think about creating a one-week summer day camp for people with disabilities modeled on Friendship Circle, where every camper has a “buddy.” I was really pumped to do it, but I did not have a plan set in stone. My Mom said, ‘Go for it, but, remember, this is your project, not mine.’ I went to the Sandy Springs Tennis Center and asked them if they’d donate a couple of tennis courts, and they said, OK. I was excited to launch what I was then calling “Serve it Up” Summer Camp, but pretty soon it dawned on me that I needed a little backup. I wanted it to be a free camp to encourage all who wanted to participate to attend. I knew I needed to raise money and I knew I needed my friends to help pull this off. I launched a Go-Fund-Me campaign online that raised over $1,000 for us to get started.

I worked with Rickelle New, the Director of Friendship Circle, and I created the tennis program and she created the arts and crafts program. We developed a flyer and reached out to all of the families that had participated in Friendship Circle activities. Recruiting my friends to become buddies for our campers was the next challenge, but eventually more than 20 of my friends signed up to volunteer. It was a great success to be outside playing tennis with our special friends. So, the following summer, I was excited to create another camp. We decided to move the camp indoors to the gym at Atlanta Jewish Academy, so those who did not want to be outside all day could also participate. That summer, we played many sports in addition to tennis and still included arts and crafts. Many of our campers with special needs even had two buddies! I learned that many people with disabilities have other health issues. They can’t take the heat and need the comfort of air conditioning.

I really thought I was doing this for kids with special needs. But, when the parents of these kids came up to me and told me how much they valued the camp, it felt so good. I realized that not only did the kids benefit, but their entire families benefited from what we had created. So did my volunteers. Now, as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, with the benefit of hindsight and a little maturity, I can see I was also doing it because of the values I learned in my family, at school, and through Friendship Circle. When you help others and build real relationships, you are doing the work of tikkun olam.

Keeping Judaism Alive in Our Little Family

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

By the time my twins Megan and Brett were 14 months old, my marriage to their father was over. Their Dad isn’t Jewish, and after the divorce he was pretty detached from the kids. Suddenly, I was their everything. I realized it was up to me to keep Judaism alive in my little family.

Even before my divorce, I signed the twins up for PJ Library, and took them to Tot Shabbat at Kol Emeth. Later on I started looking into Big Brother programs for my son. You had to be at poverty level to qualify for these mentoring programs – but luckily, not for PAL, Atlanta’s only Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister program.

Amazing things happened the minute I met the PAL Program Manager, Carly Sonenshine, at JF&CS. She encouraged me to put both kids in the program and then matched us with our Big PALS — Bennett Ginburg for Brett, and Marni Bronstein for Megan. They take the kids to events, out for ice cream, and just have fun with them. To say my twins have bonded with them is an understatement.

A Big PAL fills in huge gaps for a single parent. They are friends in a way a parent can never be. Brett has ADHD and dyslexia and Bennett really understands it. Megan was nervous about going to Camp Coleman next summer, and Marni handled her anxiety beautifully.

Megan and Brett’s PALS give them one-on-one time I can never provide enough of. After three years with Bennett and Marni, they’ve found friends, role models and Jewish mentors for life.

If you think your family would benefit from the PAL program, learn more here.

By: Karen Bowen

Federation is proud to support the JF&CS PAL Program, which provides one-on-one mentoring relationships for children with trusted adults.

Empowering Girls Through STEM

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, JumpSpark

Despite the strides made in gender equality, it’s dispiriting to see how many young girls still avoid math and science classes. By the time these girls get to high school, their lack of exposure to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) can foreclose exciting educational and career opportunities. Today, women make up nearly half of the working population, but only 26% work in STEM fields. That’s why Atlanta Jewish Academy (AJA), in partnership with JumpSpark, and with grant support from Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta (JWFA), created the Young Women in STEM Career Fair, held March 17 at AJA. The goal was to open doors for 8th-12th grade girls through mini-classes and face-to-face networking opportunities in STEM subjects.

“Female role models are so important,” said Rivka Monheit, an AJA parent who chaired the Program Committee. She’s just one of the parents who reached deep into her Rolodex to find professional women to would share their passion for science and math with young high school women and become potential mentors. Monheit is a patent attorney who advises chemical firms and puts her science background to work every day. She is passionate about exposing girls to STEM early, so that if they do pursue science careers, they don’t fall into the so-called leaky pipeline. “There’s a 50% drop out rate of women leaving science careers or simply not advancing,” Monheit says. “We want to help girls get the right training and plot their course.”

The STEM Career Fair definitely lit a spark with AJA students. “The Young Women in STEM event was extremely empowering! I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, but I never knew I wanted to be a doctor. This event gave me the courage and empowerment to keep going on and live up to my dreams with the strength of being a woman,” said Tali Feen, an AJA Upper School Student.

The mentors were similarly enthusiastic. Dr. Amanda Cooper Cohn, a Senior Advisor for Vaccines at CDC said, “I loved being at the Young Women in STEM Career fair both as a mother with my two teenage daughters and as a mentor.  Seeing the girls engaged with a variety of STEM professionals made me realize the world of opportunity is so much bigger for these girls than it was for me, which is exciting but also underscores the importance of mentoring girls through the process of entering STEM professions.  All the girls were curious, engaged, and interested in careers where they can make an impact. I also loved sharing my own path as well as hearing about the paths of the other amazing STEM volunteers at the fair.”

The STEM Fair was also the kick-off of a mentoring program for girls that will launch next school year. JumpSpark is the lead partner on this aspect of the initiative and is accepting applications that will match girls with STEM mentors. Find out more and apply here. Girls from any school are invited to apply. Applications are open now through April 17. Mentees will be notified June 2019.

Being a Self-Advoate for Autism

By COMMUNITY, Jewish Abilities Alliance

Eren Niederhoffer is an Atlanta young professional with skills in business administration and non-software analytics. He is also a self-advocate for people with autism and is leading and growing an organization called Autistic Self Advocacy Atlanta (ASAA) which offers social experiences for people on the spectrum. Eren’s activism includes intentionally calling himself “autistic,” rather than “a person with autism.” Below he shares why he chooses using this language, instead of people-first language.

Have you noticed that a lot of people say they’re Jewish when it comes to politics, but won’t go into detail about how they practice Judaism? They simply say they come from a Jewish family and seem unwilling to express pride in their roots or their culture.

I see it as fear. That’s why when a person says, “I’m autistic,” it feels to me like instead of running from who they are, or dismissing that part of who they are, they’re acknowledging that it is part of them. They’re acknowledging the need to accept and live with the autistic part of them rather casting it aside. Just as Judaism is a part of who I am, when I say, “I am autistic,” I am saying, “this is who I am.”

Right now, my organization Autistic Self Advocacy Atlanta (ASAA) is providing lunch and dinner socials so that many autistics can meet and make friends. I am mentoring other autistics to become event hosts and leaders and also trying to help them realize they don’t have to hide who they are. Autistics can be open about themselves and to others around them. We should not hide that we are Jews either. Why would we be ashamed of being Jewish? Should some of us be shamed for being autistic? The logic is the same! This is why building an autistic community can give us that sense of confirmation to be true to ourselves.

Learn more about ASAA, self-advocacy, and MENTRA.

Finally Doing “Mommy” Things

By COMMUNITY, JEWISH JOURNEYS, PJ LIbrary

Discovering A Jewish Life in Atlanta
by Rachel Sigman

Living in the south and being Jewish can make one feel a bit disconnected at times. I live in the diaspora of Woodstock, and if you are Jewish up here, you won’t have everyone you meet inviting you over for Shabbat dinner.  That’s what I was able to expect in Miami and in New York, but here, not so much. Here, I am lucky if I can find Hanukkah candles when Hanukkah rolls around. Here, there is no synagogue nearby.

So it’s a miracle that adopting our son Jack was the best Jewish thing that my husband, Darryl and I have ever done.  He is a perfect little baby boy and has brought us immeasurable joy already.  Jack will turn one in March and watching him grow and achieve milestones brings our little family so much nachas (joy). As an older mother, it has also been a small miracle to finally meet other Jewish moms and build a Jewish life with this beautiful boy. PJ Library helped make that happen. I knew very little about PJ Library until a friend of mine signed me up for free Jewish books, just after we were matched with a birthmother. PJ Library brings Jewish families together and gives our kids a sense of Jewish community. Now I know I don’t have to move back to New York or Boca Raton. I can live in Woodstock and still be part of a large Jewish network.

I met my husband Darryl on JDate. He was also from New York and our families lived less than an hour away from each other in Florida. Darryl was raised in a Conservative family. I had gone to Hebrew school, had been to Israel, and even attended a seminary in Crown Heights. Darryl was working in the corporate office in Home Depot for 15 years already when we met. I was an elementary school teacher. Neither of us were practicing much at the time, but we both identified as Jewish.  We fell in love and got married.  It was bashert (pre-ordained).

Like many older couples, shortly after we married we discovered that we had some fertility issues.  We considered in vitro fertilization, but failed attempts at pregnancy and heartbreak sounded so bleary to me. Darryl’s father Fred suggested adoption to me many years ago. I loved that idea but did not yet have the gumption to make it happen.  Shortly after Fred’s death I turned 42 and realized that if I didn’t have a baby soon, it would never happen. I decided to commit every fiber of my being into becoming a mom. I pushed Darryl to go through the adoption process with me, knowing that he would one day thank me (he did).  In less than a year, we became mom and dad.

Our first PJ Library book came shortly after Jack was born.  A woman who used to volunteer in my classroom through Federation brought me a slew of books from PJ library for Jack.  I knew I wanted to raise my son as a Jew and made sure to give him a kosher bris so that when the time came, his conversion into the fold would be joyous and painless.  I had stopped doing Jewish things before Jack was born, but now I was eager to do mommy things.  When Hanukkah rolled around, I began looking at Facebook events and saw a familiar name: PJ Library!  PJ Library North Fulton was hosting a small Hanukkah party. Darryl and I took little Jack and it was there that I met Abby Adler and Leah Stinson, who are PJ Library Connectors.

Leah and I met for coffee.  She told me more about the wonderful programs that PJ Library does for young children, even children Jack’s age. I joined the Facebook page for PJ Library North Fulton and since then have taken little Jack to many Jewish events. Babies and toddlers play side by side at these events while parents schmooze and get to know one another.  Sometimes we meet at a preschool where children get to play in all the classrooms.  Sometimes there is an event where a craft is involved or where doing mitzvot is encouraged.  I met several moms who have children Jack’s age who are committed to raising their children in a Jewish home. Some moms have held playdates in their homes.  I am meeting some very nice people and hope to establish and maintain friendships for our little family.

Who could have guessed that a little baby, born in Arkansas, would be the spark that connected me to my Jewish roots. I know that adopting a baby from a non-Jewish birthmother means that it is up to the adoptive family to decide if they want to raise their child in a Jewish home. For me, there is no doubt that I want Jack to live a Jewish life. Finally, I feel that I can. I wish you could see how Jack’s face lights up and how he claps his little hands to his favorite song, Hava Nagila. To me it’s proof that he already has a Jewish soul.