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My Rosh Hashanah Reflections

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

It’s the start of a new year, 5783, and I find myself asking, “Where do we go next?”

A new year offers a blank slate, a chance to make one’s mark. After the tumult of the last two years, the unknown can be intimidating. But when I think of how Atlanta’s Jewish community has handled recent challenges, I feel ready to face the new year and whatever it brings.

Last year, we faced many challenges that still aren’t resolved. The war in Ukraine isn’t over—every day, thousands more people are forced to leave their homes or to wonder where their next meal will come from. COVID isn’t over—new variants continue to put people at risk, and the pandemic has changed our world in many ways that we cannot yet define. But I also know that our commitment to each other has not ended.

Over the last two years, I’ve seen priorities shift for individuals and organizations. Many things we used to want are no longer relevant, and our focus has shifted. In times of crisis, we see what’s most important: safety, security, and health. The Atlanta Jewish community has stepped up in a monumental way to care for one another, as well as people in need all over the world.

 

So where do we go next? I hope we continue to put each other first. I believe in working towards an aligned community that pursues common goals. At Federation, we speak of “meeting the moment” and being ready when a crisis emerges. The moments we have faced in the last two years are bigger than Federation, or any one organization. And I have been so moved by the power of Jewish Atlanta when these moments occurred.

5783 holds many unknowns, but we will meet them together. That is the power of community.

L’shana tovah,
Eric M. Robbins

Camp is such a special time for kids

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

When you think of “summer camp,” what comes to mind? Swimming, singing songs, roasting marshmallows over a fire?

When I think of Jewish summer camp, I think of smiling faces. Camp is such a special time for kids—it gives them space to grow and learn, and introduces them to lifelong friends. Those bonds, and the joy they bring, are the hallmark of summer camp.

Last week, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Camp Coleman on Camp Kindness Day. After two tumultuous summers disrupted by Covid-19, Jewish summer camps are once again thriving.

Covid proved an enormous challenge for our camps. Staffing issues, kids leaving early—kids having to quarantine at camp! Our camp professionals deserve recognition for facing these challenges and making sure their campers had fun while still being safe.

This summer, our camps are seeing pre-covid registration rates. Camp Coleman was buzzing with excited energy, alive with laughter. All day, I saw children helping each other, making each other laugh, creating memories they’ll never forget.

Camp isn’t just a couple weeks or months; it’s an experience that changes kids and impacts them for the rest of their lives. Camp Kindness Day is a chance to celebrate the hardworking pros who make camp happen, and it was my honor to share it with them.

Meeting the Moment Together

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Summer is here and July lies before us with its promise of fun, family, travel, and leisurely light-filled nights. Friends, we have earned it! As Campaign 2022 closes, I am buoyed by the satisfaction of knowing that our Jewish community has again gone above and beyond to meet human needs in Atlanta and around the world.

It wasn’t easy. This year, unanticipated issues hit us relentlessly — the refugee crisis in Ukraine, deadly antisemitic acts in the U.S. and around the world, serious challenges that continue to face us in the aftermath of COVID-19, and the opportunity to reunite Ethiopian Jews with their loved ones in Israel.

None of these issues are “over.” All of them will require ongoing philanthropic support. But there is no denying that in 2022, Jewish Atlanta met the moment! Here are the incredible numbers:

  • The Partners Fund, which supports local, Israel, and overseas needs, is to exceed its ambitious goal of $14.2M.
  • Thousands of you stepped up to raise more than $2.6M supporting the urgent needs of Ukrainian Jews through the Ukraine Emergency Response Fund.
  • Today, as Ukrainian evacuees make their way to safety in metro Atlanta, you continue to support them through Atlanta Ukraine Relief Assistance AURA, in collaboration with our partner, Jewish Family & Career Services.
  • Atlanta Jewish Foundation fundholders sent grants of more than $51.7M to 1,169 grantee organizations. Atlanta Jewish Foundation fundholders directed 80% of their grants to Jewish organizations, and 70% of those dollars stayed local.
  • Funding for special projects in education, mental health, housing for older adults, support for Holocaust survivors, feeding the hungry, responding to antisemitism, and more, added significant revenue to Federation this year.
  • We tallied $23.5M in total philanthropic dollars, which includes direct fundraising, incoming grants, and donor advised funds.

With passion and purpose, Jewish Atlanta demonstrated its ability to pivot, to raise funds, and strengthen our people. I have never been prouder of us. Thank you.

 

Thanks to MJP, Atlanta is Full of Welcoming Jewish Places.

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Wherever I go in the Federation world, people ask, “What’s that thing you’re doing in Atlanta with neighborhoods and mini grants? Something about Making Jewish Places?”

I’m genuinely proud to explain that here in Atlanta we have been inspired by a city planning concept called “placemaking” that reimagines and reinvents public spaces to help people connect, work, and play together in new ways. Since 2019, with generous funding from the Helen Marie Stern Memorial Fund, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta has embraced placemaking through an initiative called Making Jewish Places, or MJP. It captures a couple of bold ideas:

  1. That people don’t always need brick and mortar spaces to do Jewish things together.
  2. That at a grassroots level, people have great ideas about what builds Jewish community and social connection. We can empower them with mini-grants.
  3. That even in metro areas lacking Jewish density, when people and organizations work collaboratively, they can dramatically deepen Jewish relational engagement.

I see MJP as a radical revamping of engagement from transactional to relational. It has a couple of unique components. MJP invites ordinary community members, (including PJ Library families and our NextGen constituents) to apply for small microgrants of $180 called Gather Grants. MJP also offers larger organizational grants for collaborative projects. Either way, funding supports whatever holiday celebrations, community service projects, and other ideas local groups can conceive. Federation professionals provide support and mentorship to help actualize whatever they dream up. It is bottom-up grantmaking offering a radically different model of how Federation can operate.

Our MJP grantees say it best:

“We are new to Atlanta and know very few people. Without the Gather Grant I would have been too shy to invite new people over. I’m so glad I did, as it seems to be the start of a new social circle for me.” — Gather Host

“This year was the first year we built a sukkah in my backyard thanks to this grant funding!” Shira Colsky – NextGen Grant Recipient.

To date, MJP activity and grantmaking has focused on two geographic areas, North Fulton, and East Cobb. The feedback from grant recipients has been enthusiastic and most people express a measurably strengthened commitment to Jewish life in their neighborhoods. Through MJP over 8,000 individuals have attended 250 unique programs, 78% of which were collaborative. Our grassroots approach has built a new level of trust and goodwill between Federation and suburbs outside the perimeter (OTP). We have learned that when organizations are in relationship with their community members and with one another, the whole ecosystem thrives.

This year, Federation successfully ran four rounds of Gather Grants, with our Shabbat Gather Grants currently in progress. We are immensely proud of the diversity in the age ranges, zip codes, languages spoken, and level of observance of the grantees.

Decatur is likely to be the next MJP target area. We are beginning a “soft launch” of outreach and activities to amplify the Jewish assets that already exist in Decatur and are excited to bring MJP’s collaborative energy to an area that we believe is ripe for engagement.

MJP is something I am personally proud of. It represents this Federation’s fearlessness about trying new things. You can reach out to our MJP professional, Carla Birnbaum, to learn more about MJP possibilities. And if you missed it in Fed5 last month, listen to Danniell Nadiv, Federation’s Senior Director of Jewish Journeys, Places and Welcoming, talk about the power and potential of Making Jewish Places.

Loving the Stranger. Paying Our Privilege Forward.

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Nataliyah Fleshler and Masha Vaynman came to America with their families from Kyiv as young girls. They were part of the wave of Jews from the former Soviet Union who found refuge here in the late 1980’s and 90’s. In those years, Atlanta was a destination for Soviet Jews seeking a new life, and our community more than delivered.

Back then, Jewish Family & Career Services offered translation services to assist scores of refugees flocking to Atlanta. There was a Russian speaking social worker for the FSU (Former Soviet Union) Jewish community. Over time those services became less needed because Jewish refugees to Atlanta had become solid citizens, fluent in English, successful in their careers, yet still bringing their unique ethnic flavor to our city. Just like Nataliyah and Masha, who are both HR professionals and are raising families here.

Nataliyah and Masha are paying their privilege forward by organizing a massive volunteer program to send medical supplies to Ukrainian refugees. They are choosing to forget the bullying, the hatred, and the discrimination they experienced as Jewish children in Ukraine and are throwing themselves into Ukrainian relief work. To me there is something very Jewish about this.

Jews well understand the commandment to love the stranger and protect the vulnerable. Having been strangers in many hostile lands, having been isolated, persecuted, and exterminated because of our differences, we are uniquely attuned to the needs of immigrants and refugees. And baruch ha shem, we Jews have Israel — a Jewish homeland that has never stopped taking in huddled masses from North Africa, Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, and the former Soviet republics.

So, this Passover, let us celebrate Nataliyah and Masha, who have not turned away from the land they fled. They help renew the Passover story for us this year and remind us that we can all be part of a modern-day Exodus for millions of Ukrainians seeking safety and freedom.

‘Nobody wins in a war’

By Eric's Blog, GLOBAL JEWRY

[This post originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on March 25th, 2022.]

Seeing the Ghosts of Our Grandparents

It’s a seven-hour drive from Warsaw to the Ukraine border crossing at Medyka where thousands of people are seeking safety and refuge in Poland. This is day two of my pilgrimage to Poland with Jewish leaders from ten U.S. cities. We are all here to bear witness to the modern-day refugee crisis that has displaced millions of Ukrainians in a matter of weeks. We are all here to do whatever we can to fund and support the massive humanitarian effort underway to save Ukrainian Jews and other displaced Ukrainians. We are committed to returning home and telling American Jews a story we never imagined would happen again.

Ironically, we are driving through our grandparents’ Poland — once home to the largest, most vibrant Jewish community in the world and the intellectual birthplace of countless Jewish thought leaders, rabbis, and artists. As our bus continues eastward, it is haunting to pass through towns with names like Lublin and Chelm, made famous in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem. It is even more haunting to see signs for Polish towns like Oswiecim, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka — the places where our people were herded like cattle, tortured and gassed.

Only 10,000 Jews remain in Poland. But today, millions of refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, are pouring into Poland seeking safety and shelter from the destruction, and brutality of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. This time, we are here for them.

Our Partners on the Ground

My fly-in to Poland and the Ukraine border was organized by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) which coordinates the heroic on-the-ground work of our overseas partners, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). These two organizations are doing lifesaving work to protect and support Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Both have been deeply engaged with Jews in Ukraine for more than 75 years. Both have established a strong infrastructure as they work in coordination with each other and with other NGOs in eastern Europe.

For as long as there has been an annual Community Campaign in Atlanta, JAFI and JDC have received significant financial support from us. This support, along with a collective of Federations around the world, has allowed them to build a robust infrastructure that builds the Jewish communities of Ukraine and supports basic needs.

Returning to Warsaw After 20 Years

This is not my first time in Warsaw, Poland. Twenty years ago, I came here to visit the small village, now part of Lithuania, where my grandfather was born. On this unexpectedly warm and bright day, Warsaw impressed me with its combination of modern and historic architecture. There was a surprising calmness to the city, and strangely, it recalled the vibrant Squirrel Hill Jewish community of Pittsburgh where I had the privilege of growing up. My Pittsburgh Jewish community was created by Jews who fled Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Still, it is eerie to be in this modern city where parts of the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto still exist.

The reality is that American Jews like me were born in the very best place, at the absolute best time in world history. How stunning now to be a 21st century American visiting a country that is absorbing millions of refugees, most of whom were living quite modern lives just a month ago. That so many of them are Jewish feels like an old nightmare.

In Warsaw, I was nearly hit by a bicycle while absent mindedly walking in the bike lane. I later met the individual who nearly ran me over in a nearby coffee shop and we had coffee together. He let me interview him and I recorded it on my phone. He was a Pole who was hosting refugees in his flat and had many friends doing the same. He was not surprised by the war in Ukraine and said that he knew it was brewing for years. The current situation reminded him of the world’s response to World War II and how long it took the world to wake up to what was happening. He said it was easy to imagine that we were like two people having coffee in Paris in 1939, talking about what was happening in Germany. It underscored the unpredictability of this war and all the possible scenarios that could play out.

As I walked the streets of Warsaw and neared the central train station, I saw refugees everywhere. Families without fathers were camped out on blow-up beds, resting on benches, eating meals, and getting supplies from temporary tents. Some were passing through and some were trying to settle in Warsaw. The scale of it was heartbreaking.

The Hope of Making Aliyah

On my first evening in Warsaw, I visited a Jewish Agency for Israel processing center set up at a local hotel. Anyone Jewish or related to someone in Israel could come in and learn the required steps to emigrate to Israel. Families of all shapes and sizes were getting the assistance they needed. Thousands had already landed in Israel. It was moving to see the State of Israel living out its mission to be a safe home for all Jews whenever they should need it. At the JAFI center, I heard stories of Holocaust survivors and righteous Gentiles choosing a future in Israel, and stories of people who left in such a hurry they had no documents at all. Here it did not matter. All who wanted to leave for Israel were helped. It was heartwarming to meet the many physicians and trauma counselors, so familiar with the wounds of war and displacement, who had come to help Jews and non-Jews find comfort, safety, and optimism.

At the Ukraine Border

Arriving at the Medyka border crossing was the emotional crescendo of my trip, where the enormity of this crisis became real. We stopped along the way at another processing center staffed by the JDC and JAFI where we donated more than one ton of relief supplies collected at home. We met many families. Perhaps because I am the father of an adolescent girl, I was most impacted by a mom and her 15-year-old daughter who left their home in Kyiv. Their story, like all the others, was horrendous. They lived in a bomb shelter for weeks and left Kyiv with the little they could carry and their pets. The young girl, Sophia, was withdrawn and distraught and her mom spoke between tears. When the mom finished speaking, she asked Sophia to talk about some drawings she had made. I will never forget how Sophia ran to get one of them and explained how they depicted her emotions and fears, and her dreams and aspirations for peace.

The border felt sacred in unexpected ways. Seeing the JDC and JAFI professionals in uniform alongside the other NGOs, I knew we were doing what we do best. A steady stream of families was coming across the border pushing strollers, pulling suitcases, and looking exhausted. It seemed utterly inhuman to me that all these people, no different than me, had been displaced. Some of them were in wheelchairs or were holding the hands of traumatized children with noticeable special needs. At the same time, I witnessed incredible gemilut chasadim (human kindness) in a way I had never seen before. Our partners were there to accept and embrace traumatized and brave people as they poured across the border. It was a scene I will never forget. The scope of the refugee crisis is immense. And there are literally millions who have chosen to stay or cannot leave Ukraine. What will happen to them?

Like Sophia, I do not and never will understand war. Nobody wins in a war and any life lost is one too many. History teaches us repeatedly that power, ego, and evil are destructive forces. Echoing the words of Anne Frank, I do believe that most people are good. Somehow, we need to fight the Amaleks who appear every generation, who are dedicated to darkness and destruction. I am thankful to be part of a community and a profession that is trying to do whatever it can to help people so terribly impacted by this unnecessary war. I will return to Atlanta from this brief fly-in and commit myself more deeply to do everything I can to help.

Mexico on My Mind. Ukraine in My Heart.

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

While my friends and colleagues are working around the clock to save lives at the borders of Ukraine, The Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) work around the globe isn’t stopping for a minute.  

And neither am I.

Last week I had a fascinating experience in Mexico City where I visited Project TEN – Be The Change. It’s a Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) program that targets young Jews from the entire Jewish world and brings them together to do community development work. In counterpoint to the dire situation in Ukraine where JAFI is also doing incredible work, it was uplifting to see Project TEN in action. 

But now my bags are repacked with parkas and sweaters, and by the time you read this, I’ll be in Warsaw, Poland for a first-hand look at the heroic work our overseas partners are doing at the Ukrainian border.  

In this head spinning geopolitical moment, I feel the power of global Jewry and the interconnectedness of the Jewish people as never before.  

On the bright side, my trip to Mexico connected me to meet Project 10’s young adults who are on a three-month long tikkun olam project in Chimalhuacán — a high poverty community outside of Mexico City. It was joyful to see Mexican, British, and European Jewish young adults working side by side with young Israelis who have finished their army experience. They are doing good and establishing relationships that will last a lifetime.  

Project TEN currently operates projects in Israel, Mexico, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Greece, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. I can easily envision it becoming a meaningful service option for our own Atlanta young adults, whether as a gap year experience or a post-college experience through an organization like Repair the World. This is the way to build a cadre of future Jewish leaders who have passion, perspective, and impact. 

Heading into the darkness and destruction of the war in Ukraine, I feel privileged and proud to witness our incredible global Jewish network in action at the border.  

You’ll likely see some photos and brief comments from me on the Federation Facebook page. I look forward to updating the community on all that I experience at the Ukraine border when I return to Atlanta. Know that your incredible support of the Ukraine Emergency Fund is making this holy work possible. 

Your Astounding Support for the Jews of Ukraine

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

On Friday afternoon, February 25, when it was clear that a full-on Russian invasion of Ukraine was underway, Federation launched its Ukraine Emergency Fund. Literally within minutes of sending out our email appeal, Jewish Atlantans responded. Hundreds of donors opened their hearts and supported the campaign with incredible generosity and passion. As of this morning, donations exceed $589,000. I believe we are well on our way to raising at least three quarters of a million dollars.

I am also tremendously moved by what donors said inspired their gift.

“I am confident that funds will go to the correct areas if handled by Jewish Federation of Atlanta.”

“I want to help the Jewish community in Ukraine. My ancestors are from Belarus and I feel closely connected to those in Ukraine.”

“For too many years we Jews could not defend ourselves. Now we can, and we must!”

“The people of Ukraine need our help now more than ever to defend against an unhinged autocratic despot bent on destroying democracy.”

In another gesture of generosity, I am proud to share that several members of Federation’s Jewish Commercial Real Estate Network (J-CREN) pooled their funds to create a match so that 100% of every donation up to $180K be doubled for Ukrainian humanitarian relief.

Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) will oversee and distribute the funds to our on-the-ground overseas partners: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), World ORT, and the Jewish Agency for Israel. And 100% of all these emergency contributions will be transmitted to our overseas’ partners.

The Ukraine Emergency Fund demonstrates that this magnitude of response is exactly what we are built for. Nobody can marshall significant resources, and quickly and effectively deploy them the way Federation can!

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your bold and brave response that manifests our shared Jewish values. Kol yisrael aravim, zeh ba zeh. All of Israel is responsible for each other.

Why I’ll Always be a Camp Guy

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

February is JDAIM, which stands for Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, Inclusion Month. It’s also the time of year we launch our Start a Campfire Campaign to support scholarship for Jewish overnight camp. I hope you’ll support them both!

I am singling out our Jewish camps for special praise because they are places where disabilities are not seen as obstacles. They are places where bullying is never tolerated and where all kids are liberated from the cliques and social rules that operate during the school year. In this way, camp is a sweet taste of olam ha ba, the perfect world we yearn for.

I got my first real glimpse of what inclusion looks like at Camp Barney Medintz when I worked in the kitchen. It was the best job I ever had at camp, and it taught me what is really involved in feeding several hundred campers and staff members three times a day — incredible focus and hard work! To see Scott Hyman, a person with disabilities, lead in the kitchen with competence and a strong work ethic, totally inspired me.

Our camps don’t merely pay lip service to inclusion, they model it. Camp Barney’s Chalutzim program for campers 10-22 years old with special needs has been nationally recognized since it was established in 1992. Camp Ramah Darom also prioritizes inclusion and launched its Yofi program for Jewish families with children on the autism spectrum years ago. It has become a national model for inclusion in a camp setting. The MJCCA’s Chaverim day camps include staff experienced in working with children with special needs, low camper-to-staff ratio, and access to camp activities. Chaverim campers run the camp Shuk, modeled after an Israeli marketplace, fostering independence, communication, and camper confidence.

Our Jewish Abilities Alliance has reached more than 1,000 day camp and overnight camp counselors and staff through its trainings, so that these values of compassion, understanding and inclusion endure all year long.

From my years as CEO of Camp Twin Lakes and directing the Isabella Freedman retreat center, to being a camper and a counselor myself, I’ve seen miracles at camp. That’s why I’ll always be a camp guy!

Ready for Whatever Comes Next

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Many Jewish leaders around the country tell me they are exhausted and dispirited. I am not.

It is a blessing to be a part of Jewish Atlanta. There is a generous spirit here, an optimism as tall as the buildings rising in Midtown, and as fresh as the burgeoning neighborhoods of our northern suburbs. These qualities have taken us from the darkest days of COVID to our current moment — not quite “normal,” but resilient, limber, ready for whatever comes next.

Jewish Atlanta thrives because of you. Not quite six months into the 2022 Community Campaign you have helped us pass 77% of our goal for the Partners Fund. Total Philanthropy is robust at $15.4M — well on its way to the $22.2M goal. All of our Targeted Philanthropy initiatives are more than 50% towards goal or higher. Atlanta Jewish Foundation is growing, helping more and more people do good in our community. These are all healthy signs.

As 2022 gets underway, here are some things that excite me:

  • Federation’s North Metro Making Jewish Places (MJP) initiative has been a huge success. It’s all about connecting people right in their own neighborhoods and encouraging local collaboration. In 2021, MJP engaged 7,000 individuals, awarded 80 Gather Grants, and 31 Organizational grants. We will be expanding the program to a new geographic area, soon to be announced.
  • Spearheaded by the Zalik Foundation and supported by generous community donors, the Jewish Community Professional High School Tuition Grant Program, continues as part of our effort to attract and retain great Jewish professionals. Full-time Jewish professionals, clergy, and educators are eligible to receive up to a 50 percent tuition reduction if their children are currently enrolled or have been accepted to a SACS accredited Jewish high school in Atlanta. It has created a new source of risk capital, enabling the day schools to fund new investments in educational and co-curricular excellence. It has been a token of appreciation and gratitude for the work Jewish professionals and educators do on behalf of our Jewish community.
  • Our teens are loving life in Israel. With generous second year funding from The Zalik Foundation for Gap Year programs in Israel, and new support for Root One from the Marcus Foundation, we are sending more young people to Israel than ever before.

Dreaming big about our community’s future, as I do, means securing big resources. We all know people who, for a myriad of reasons, don’t give to Federation and don’t feel connected to us. This is where you can help. If there are people in your social or professional network who might benefit from a thoughtful conversation with me about our impact and mission, please let me know. I would be honored to reach out and tell them about the good we do, and the things their generosity can empower. Email me.

If you have not already made a commitment to support the 2022 Community Campaign, or to any of Federation’s five Targeted Philanthropy options: AgeWell Atlanta, Jewish Abilities Alliance, Jewish Camp Initiative, Jewish Innovation Fund, and PJ Library, please make your gift now. You’ll feel great about it!