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The Jewish World Needs Camp

By Eric's Blog

Jewish overnight camp was always the place where I could be my best self. It’s no exaggeration to say that Camp Barney Medintz made me the man, the father, the husband, and the leader I am today. So, nothing makes me happier than to tell you that our southeast Jewish overnight camps are planning to open for summer 2021, registration is robust, and Federation fundraising for camp scholarships is breaking records!

With a goal to send nearly 1,000 kids to camp, we have raised a record-breaking $41,000+ through the annual Start a Campfire campaign, and over $725,000 in total for camp scholarships this year. Camp directors are using all they’ve learned in the last year along with CDC and American Camp Association guidance to keep kids and counselors safe for the coming summer.

There’s a deeper urgency behind Federation’s push to get more kids to camp. After a year of cooped up COVID living, and a year of virtual learning for many, our kids are hungry for each other and the joy of living with peers at camp. They’ve missed so much over this past year.

It’s not just kids who need camp, and not just stressed-out parents who need their children to go off to camp for fun and independence. As Jodi Rudoren, editor of The Forward writes, “the Jewish world needs camp. The way it creates a feeling of home is rarely replicated in synagogue or school. That sense of calm that washes over everyone as they emerge each Friday evening in their whites. That intensity, that closeness, that warmth, and pure fun — all essentially, intrinsically, tied up in Jewish identity and sealed with a singalong.”

A darker truth is that many kids are feeling anxious and depressed. Children handle stress differently depending on their age, and they generally have a high susceptibility to the longer-term consequences of anxiety on their mental health. We anticipate that those who are stuck in negativity may require professional help.

Our camps will be ready! To keep camps an emotionally safe space, directors are prioritizing having trained mental health providers on their campuses this summer to support the emotional needs of campers. “We are experiencing a world-wide shared trauma experience,” Jill Goldstein Smith, Senior Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp reminds us. “Camp provides a bubble of sorts, but it is also a safe space to be vulnerable, which is where the growth happens.”

For sure, some aspects of camp will be different this summer. Rethink the bunk as a “pod.” Generally, campers will spend more time outdoors than in the past. They will do most things with their pod — eating, playing, and living together, while physically distancing from other groups. Camp directors can provide more details about these safety protocols — just ask them!

I rejoice that our Atlanta community understands the long-term power of overnight camp to build Jewish identity and lifelong engagement. I’m excited that scholarship funds are still available! Give your kids a summer without screens at our amazing Jewish overnight camps. They can’t wait to welcome you and Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, who manages Federation’s Overnight Camp initiative, can’t wait to answer your questions and even help you pick the right camp.

Be sure to send me a photo of your child when he or she returns home happier, wiser, stronger, and more independent than you ever imagined!

Connection is Our Superpower

By Eric's Blog

When the whole world fell apart last March and COVID-19 overtook our lives, Jewish Atlanta reeled, but it never collapsed. Jewish life carried on because we had a superpower that others lacked.

Deep human connections.

We didn’t realize it then, but it’s clear to me now that the relationships and partnerships we’ve nurtured across our Jewish ecosystem are what allowed us to respond quickly and effectively, to rise up and meet human needs.

Human connections helped us raise $4.3 million for COVID-19 relief in just six weeks. Our IT professionals moved most of our organizations to virtual operations in days, not weeks.

When our Jewish day schools switched to virtual learning, we leveraged relationships to make incredible things happen. Through our partnership with Jewish HomeLife we got our day school teachers COVID tested so they could continue to teach. When we saw that the kitchen at The Epstein School wasn’t in use, we turned it into a staging area to make meals for homebound older adults.

We invested in human connection by assigning Federation professionals to convene meetings across all our community sectors — schools, synagogues, human service organizations, older adult services, and more. Those sector conversations helped us understand community needs and prioritize our response. And they established the protocols that helped our schools, organizations, camps, and the MJCCA reopen safely.

With most of our professionals still working from home, and services being delivered virtually, people ask me all the time how we’re faring. Actually, we’re doing surprisingly well. Jewish Atlanta is recovering. That’s because our virtual connections are built on face-to-face connections that came before the pandemic.

I pray that at this moment when vaccines are finally becoming available, we may soon resume the face-to-face connections that laid the foundation that has kept us strong and resilient during this unprecedented time.

A Raging Menorah

By Eric's Blog

Who could possibly argue against the idea that when our light increases there is more goodness in the world?

Yet centuries ago, there was a rabbinic debate over this very thing. In a famous argument on how to light the Hanukkah candles Beit Shammai said: On the first day one kindles eight lights and gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day, they kindle one light. And Beit Hillel said: On the first day one kindles one light, and then gradually increases the number until, on the last day, they kindle eight lights.

Today we follow the path of Beit Hillel, raising ourselves spiritually by adding light to the world. It’s exactly what I see today in Jewish Atlanta. Each day our community organizations are sharing ideas and resources with each other — as Jewish HomeLife did to provide COVID-19 testing at our day schools, as Serve the Moment volunteers do by virtually visiting older adults at The Breman Home and Berman Commons, and as our North Metro synagogues are doing to create Hanukkah celebrations together.

Each organization alone is a glimmer, but together they are a raging menorah, lighting the way to a brilliant collective future. Hanukkah teaches us that candle by candle, mitzvah by mitzvah, we really can overcome the darkness and change the world.

Bridging the Divide

By Eric's Blog

You know the saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.” It’s funny and true. Jews seem to enjoy taking ideas apart and examining them from every angle. What is the Talmud, after all, but a book of debate?

The Jewish tradition of argument has given the world more than its share of brilliant Jewish scholars, leaders, lawyers, and teachers. I guess outspokenness and debate are byproducts of being a people devoted to repairing the world. But how do we handle argument right now when deep political divisions enflame the nation and bubble up within our own Jewish community?

In last week’s Atlanta Jewish Times, reporter Dave Schechter asked Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Ahavath Achim Synagogue how to cultivate civility and turn down the rhetorical heat. Rabbi Rosenthal pointed to unique ways Judaism helps people find common ground.

In this moment when Georgia is at the center of the news, and when one of the run-off candidates for Senate is Jewish, political passions are boiling over once again.

Marc Gopin is another rabbi who has dedicated his life to conflict resolution in Afghanistan, Syria, Ireland, and Israel. He counsels people embroiled in political argument to “Stop talking, listen, and keep asking questions.” Thoughtful questions, he believes, illuminate the mind and move us towards what we have in common. Gopin has discovered that kindness and concern literally create new neural pathways that can change the mind. Our words can take us from fear and hate to openness and compassion.

At times like this I sometimes hear from people who feel that this Federation, and Federations in general, favor a particular point of view. I want to be really clear: Federation celebrates engagement in democracy. However, as a nonprofit, we cannot and do not participate in elections, including endorsing candidates or parties.

Federation remains focused on our mission to care for, connect, and strengthen our Jewish community throughout greater Atlanta, Israel, and the world, with our focus on impacting people, not politics. About this there should be no argument.

Demonstrating Compassion in our Responses and Actions

By Eric's Blog

This article was featured in the Atlanta Jewish Times for November.

Uncertainty abounds amidst a global pandemic and at a political crossroads. Our children and grandchildren are in various models of school – face-to-face, remote, and everything in between – aware that a positive COVID-19 test result can call for change at any moment. These are challenging times, to put it mildly.

And yet, these are also opportunities for us – both as individuals and as part of a larger kehillah (Jewish community) – to practice and uphold the very Jewish principles and values we celebrated during Rosh Hashana and recommitted on Yom Kippur. Even when we are stressed, it is imperative we support each other, our community, and the organizations we hold dear.

As you may have read, after many months of having no cases of COVID-19, the William Breman Jewish Home experienced an outbreak which, sadly, has taken eight lives. Together, as a community, we mourn for these individuals, and we offer our heartfelt condolences to their loved ones. We have in our thoughts those who are in the hospital; we are grateful for the caregivers. We are fortunate that Jewish HomeLife is served by leaders who responded quickly, instituting the comprehensive COVID response plan they had prepared months ago. And, while we know that across the country COVID-19 rates have been rising in older adult care communities, agencies are being reassured that this vulnerable population will be among the first to receive a vaccine. Thankfully, the numbers at the Breman Home are steadily declining, and currently there are nine residents and two staff who have tested positive for the virus. They continue to conduct weekly testing and have not had any new positive cases at the William Breman Jewish Home since November 1.

Just last month, we admitted our shortcomings to G-d and asked Him for forgiveness. We pledged to be better Jews, to be better humans. Our job, as good stewards of the greater Atlanta Jewish community, is to support the Breman Home through this time. Our individual – and collective – response to this news should be one filled with compassion and helpfulness.

Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) and the shiva ritual is steeped in our Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought myriad challenges to observing these traditions in their usual manner. We, as a community, have an opportunity – an obligation as Jews – to support the families who are suffering losses in whatever ways we can. At the very least, we can provide sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

Despite the uncertainty we all undoubtedly feel right now, we can cultivate some ‘best of times’ through our responses to events, and through our actions.

When the Telephone is a Lifeline

By Eric's Blog

Few things make me feel better right now than having a socially distanced “playdate” with a family member or friend. Sometimes I bring a chair to their driveway, or we take a bike ride, or we sit together in a local park and catch up. It’s the best feeling!

But what happens when you live alone and are at elevated risk for the virus?  That was Cheryl’s story.

“Most of my friends have husbands and children who keep them busy. I live alone and have very little family. For me, One Good Deed has truly been a gift that has greatly enhanced my life. Now, I have someone to talk to by phone,” she told me.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jewish Atlanta has done far more than simply raise money, it has raised spirits. One Good Deed’s Friendly Phone Visitor Program (from Jewish Family & Career Services) is a tremendous example of doing just that.

Cheryl was matched with a 26-year-old volunteer named Lexie. They had an immediate rapport and have become great friends. Their age difference only enhances the relationship. Cheryl has the life experience to give Lexie sage advice, and Lexie helps Cheryl stay current and connected with her generation.

“I love being matched up with Cheryl. Pre-COVID we had a great time shopping and exploring restaurants around Brookhaven. We still talk multiple times a day and I can’t wait to take her out after the virus is gone. I do miss seeing her, but phone calls are always nice,” says Lexie.

​Since the pandemic started, Cheryl had another telephone friend named Jane. Although they have not been able to get together in-person, their conversations mean the world to Cheryl. “Jane is a good cook, and we love talking about one of my favorite interests — food! I’m hoping to meet Jane face to face and share a lunch together when the pandemic is under control,” Cheryl said.

The pandemic has shown all of us how debilitating loneliness can be, and that even a short conversation has the power to lift the heart. Thanks to organizations like One Good Deed, a new friend can be just a phone call away. I am moved by all the ways our community is reaching out to build human connections — Repair the Moment’s virtual visiting, JF&CS grocery delivery program, and AgeWell’s Atlanta’s virtual programming for older adults are great examples. It makes me so proud to see these mitzvahs happening everywhere!

If you or someone you know would love to be matched with a Friendly Phone Visitor, contact One Good Deed at 770-677-9489.

The Gates Are Not Closed Yet

By Eric's Blog

Yesterday, many of us experienced the drama of the Yom Kippur N’eilah service and heard the closing blast of the shofar. But lest you think that the Gates of Repentance are shut tight until next year and our fates are sealed, let me share another idea.

I learned this teaching — that the “gates” don’t truly close until the eighth day of Sukkot, right before Shemini Atzeret, on a day known as Hoshana Rabba (The Great Supplication). The Zohar, a collection of Jewish mystical writings, teaches that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not “delivered” until the end of Sukkot, giving us an extra measure of time to lessen the impact of G-d’s verdict for the new year.

It only amplifies what I already love about Sukkot and its embrace of the land and the bounty of the earth, which I feel so keenly this year. While a sukkah is an enclosure, it’s somewhat COVID-friendly since it’s built outdoors, only has walls on three sides, and has a roof that is deliberately open to the sky. Please understand, for safety’s sake, strict social distancing and masking rules should apply on Sukkot, but what a joy to celebrate a holiday out of doors!

My bigger point is that there are opportunities for spiritual work and repentance with the upcoming festivals of Sukkot (my favorite Jewish holiday), Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

Sukkot is a reminder of human vulnerability. It’s a time to remember that too many suffer from hunger and homelessness. It’s an opportunity to support the Jewish and other shelters that protect them: The Zaban Paradies Center serving couples at The Temple, and Rebecca’s Tent serving homeless women at Congregation Shearith Israel. It’s an opportunity to support Federation’s 2021 Community Campaign, the JF&CS Kosher Food Pantry, our friends at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and so many other nonprofits that serve people in need.

And it’s a time to remember our beloved planet earth. Fires blaze on the west coast, glaciers the size of Delaware fall into the sea, and temperature extremes generate multiple hurricanes off our shores. What will we do to green our community? Let’s use these remaining days to challenge ourselves to put the environment on our agenda this coming year.

Along with acts of loving-kindness, t’shuva (repentence), tefila (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving) are our uniquely Jewish tools for world repair and a better future.Even the smallest efforts have the power to change. I love how Federation plays a role for justice in our city by engaging young adults in Repair the World and Serve the Moment. Find a mitzvah with your name on it and do something kind and good — yes, there’s still time!

The Shinshinim Are Returning!

By Eric's Blog

In a time of global disruption and national anxiety, I want to share some very happy news. After extensive planning for their safety and health, we will welcome a new cohort of six Israeli Shinshinim to Atlanta right after the high holidays.

Atlanta is one of 19 North American communities continuing to host young Israelis spending a gap year engaging with Diaspora Jewry. Atlanta’s decision to host them embodies our commitment to kesher, human bridge building, and our commitment to Global Jewish Peoplehood.

The Shinshinim also exemplify one of Federation’s core values – fearlessness! Not that we are being casual about their safety.  To protect them and the people they interact with here, we are following extensive health and legal guidelines already established by the Jewish Agency (JAFI). And even though it’s not required in Georgia, the Shinshinim will quarantine together for 14 days upon arrival in Atlanta.

Now that our Jewish day schools, JKG, and the MJCCA are open, there’s plenty for them to do. Before they even get here, the Shinshinim will connect with our community. They have an orientation this week in our Partnership region of Yokneam and Megiddo and will continue to reach out to their Atlanta host families and host organizations. Their work will be on a hybrid model, combining in-person and virtual interactions with a continual emphasis on safety.

Two of the Shinshinim are observant Jews, including a young woman whose mother, Omer Yankilevitch, was recently named the first female orthodox Minister of Diaspora in Israel.

I am so grateful to the Schoenbaum family for supporting the Shinshinim program here in Atlanta, as a way to express their values.  The cohort will be well supported by Rich Walter, Federation’s VP of Programs and Grantmaking; Keren Rosenberg, Global Jewish Peoplehood Director; and Andrea Levy, a former host “Mom” who supervised last year’s group, will be the Shinshinim Coordinator. Having them back in Atlanta is a win-win for all of us!

Listening, Learning, Stay Connected

By Eric's Blog

I love the Jewish people, and I love Atlanta. As a people, we have deep passions. As Jews living in the south who hail from all over the United States, we’ve built a beautiful mosaic here – a community with a diversity of perspectives and practices. Yet we are connected by a shared narrative, culture, history, shared struggles, and religion.

It’s complicated. That’s why everyone is experiencing this moment differently. As individuals and as a community, we are grappling with grief, working to empathize with others’ pain and struggles, and perhaps struggling at times to understand others’ perspectives.

I believe that as long as we remain connected – as long as we are a community – we have an opportunity to make a positive impact. But of course, how to do so is easier said than done.

This is a time for listening and learning. We owe it to ourselves to understand other perspectives. All voices are important. We’re all made in God’s image. I work every day to not judge anyone, and I do my best to understand how others come to their perspectives. I try to put myself in their shoes, stay open to changing my perspective, and even ready to adopt new ideas from people I love and respect. This is important to me because, in the end, we are a family. Judaism thrives when we are together as a community. Part of the beauty of our culture is that we’ve always welcomed a diversity of perspectives.

So what is the role of Federation in this context? Like everyone, we are listening and learning – guided by our mission, vision, and values. Part of building a strong, vibrant connected, caring community is playing a role in bringing different voices to the table in our community – and being at the table in the larger community.

Perhaps the greatest challenge along these lines is the perception that Federation might be attempting to speak for the community when really we’re doing our best to communicate with the community – speaking to people and listening to them – and, where we can, connecting people who might not otherwise be connected.  Because that’s part of building community.

None of this is easy. I welcome you to let us know when you don’t think we get it right. I hope you will always find an openness to criticism here. I would only ask that we all afford each other some grace, particularly in this moment. Let’s assume we’re all working for a better world for us and for our children and their children, even if we come to that work from different perspectives.

Celebrating Our Thought Leaders

By Eric's Blog

Few things get me more excited than passionate discussions with friends and colleagues about Jewish ideas and the Jewish future. Whether in leadership trainings, at professional retreats, or around my dinner table, I love how deep conversations on difficult topics light up my brain with fresh insights and get my synapses firing. Occasionally, I’ve shared my personal thoughts in Op-Eds and in online publications like e-Jewish Philanthropy, and I’m absolutely delighted that our Federation professionals are doing the same.

Four members of our Federation professional team have recently published articles in Forward, e-Jewish Philanthropy, the Atlanta Jewish Times, and on our website. As colleagues and thought leaders, they make me incredibly proud and exemplify our core values of excellence, fearlessness, and empathy, along with our culture of being a learning organization.

Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, draws on her urban planning background to wonder how, after the pandemic, communities will shift the way they think about public, private, and Jewish places. She reminds us that after the destruction of The Temple, Judaism pivoted to a synagogue model, and that in the American experience, we created JCCs, camps and day schools to express our Judaism. Now Zoom has turned our living rooms into sacred spaces. Read Jodi’s predictions about hyperlocalism and collectivism.

Jori Mendel, our V.P.of Innovation makes the case for the power of creativity as a driver of organizational value and community vibrancy. She argues that organizations should cultivate an innovation mindset that prioritizes collaboration and R&D, and take the time to understand what “customers” want and value. Read it here.

Rabbi Melissa Scholten-Guttierez, Federation’s Jewish Camp Initiative Manager, reflects on the genius of Jewish mourning rituals, and how even during a pandemic, when social distancing deprives us of the usual ways to grieve, a community can find solace. Read it here.

Rabbi Elana Perry, who leads Federation’s Jewish Education Collaborative initiative, lays out an inspiring blueprint for how we intend to transform part-time Jewish education in Atlanta, invest in great teaching, and make it something families and kids are truly excited about. See the flipbook about it here.